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A School for Vernacular Algorithms

Tegan Bristow

#vernacular

#african

#communityKnowledge


Introduction

Multi-colored screen shot from an interactive video installation. White, red, blue, and purple colors are arranged in a pixelated form that resembles beadwork. These geometric repeating patterns vary slightly from frame to frame.
Output screenshot from Interactive Video Installation (3 x 5 m interactive projection built with Processing and Kinect) at the School for Vernacular Algorithms. Image credit: Tegan Bristow.

In an investigation that started in 2018 and led by questions I had on the colonial disenfranchisement of pre-colonial African cultural led techne-cultures, the projects of a ‘Vocabulary for Vernacular Algorithms’ and ‘School for Vernacular Algorithms’ were born (2018 – today). The entire project in its various public facing and collaborative forms is an interrogation of algorithmic thinking, using ‘Vernacular Algorithms’ firstly as a lens through which to explore the lack of egalitarianism and aesthetic centric techne cultures in contemporary algorithmic systems. And secondly to develop a curriculum for learning math, code and algorithmic thinking through indigenous and vernacular African art forms such as beadwork, basketry and song.

The project asks philosophical and practical questions to egalitarian ‘systems thinking’ in traditional African cultural practices. Asking how vernacular algorithmic thinking can be used to unpack and critique contemporary computing and the algorithmic organization of society; which has come to dominate not only our digital but lived experiences.

One side of the outcomes are a practical focus on what can be learned from African beadwork, palm / grass weaving, and lyrical practices in Southern Africa from a mathematical and algorithmic perspective. While the other side simultaneously and very importantly questioning how egalitarian techne cultures engage: logic, math, lived experience, history, environmental and cultural contexts into a single system.


The Recipe

Recipes are a journey and this one starts in the cool and darkened storerooms of the Wits Art Museum in Johannesburg, South Africa. Here and on this day in 2018 (with the boiling weather in the streets of Johannesburg beyond the museum walls) stood three disparate groups: game art students, information engineering students and African art curators.

I had brought these three together into this room to specifically look at the museums collection through the lens of pre-colonial technology culture and to interrogate the collection through the lens of fractal mathematics, in response to African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indeginous Design by Ron Eglash.

Close up of back of the the lower legs and feet of Philisiwe Dube, a Black IsiZulu woman, wearing beaded adornments on her ankles. The cuff of the adornment is comprised of white, finely textured cording that transitions to multicolor beading in orange, red, green, blue, turquoise, grey, white, black, and brown, grazing across her heels.
Beadwork made and worn by Philiswe Dube, 2021 School of Vernacular Algorithms. Image credit: Tegan Bristow. Photo credit: Zivanai Matangi.

A Place To Start

This day in the cooled museum stores started what was for me and many others to come, a philosophical and critical enquiry that aimed to:

  • Decolonise the notion that technical knowledges are only Western.
  • Understand (and just the surface here) of the fascinating relationship between technical and cultural knowledges in Africa.
  • Bring this knowledge into contemporary African computing and digital practices and thereby an intergenerational link in math, code and culture in Africa.
  • Build confidence in young African learners on the relevance of their cultures and the knowledge that surround them in a technology oriented society.

Breathing Life into Art Histories and Culturally Embedded Techne Histories

In groups, students were set loose to find amongst the thousands of artworks and cultural objects works that showed fractal mathematical systems referred to by Eglash:

  • Scaling.
  • Recursion.
  • Complexity.
  • Numeric Systems.
  • Geometric Algorithms.

With these they wrote new views that actively showed previously unwritten links between the mathematical system and cultural histories of each. These included a woven Baluba (Cameron) food basket that shifted geometrically from a square to a circle to a triangle. A beautiful example of geometric algorithms which in Luba culture reflected the complex personal shifts and growth in a person through time. Another, the Thevele Medicinal Horn of the VhaVenda (Southern Africa), a horned container beaded with a blue and green logarithmic spiral indicating the extensive use of ‘infinity’ that reflects the deep spiritual link in Venda culture to sustainable ecosystems and ancestral knowledge systems.

Philisiwe Dube a Black IsiZulu woman stands at profile in the center of the image, facing right against a brick wall painted unevenly in white in the background. Her face is turned slightly to the camera. She is wearing a white short sleeved top and a dark skirt with multicolor beaded panels. Her hat, belt, wristbands, and ankle bracelets have multicolor beading. She wears a white beaded collar that falls in an intricate pattern over her shoulders. The beaded adornments are artworks of her own creation.
Curriculum lead in the 2021 School of Vernacular Algorithms: Philisiwe Dube. Image Credit: Tegan Bristow. Photo Credit: Zivanai Matangi
Nhlanthla Mhlangu, a Black South African man, stands shirtless and barefoot in the center of the image, against a brick wall painted unevenly in white in the background. Nhlanthla's posture is tall and erect. His right hand rests on top of a long stick, left hand gentle in repose. He is wearing a multicolored beaded headband, armbands, and belt. He is also wearing a multicolor beaded collar around his neck that fans out into intricate lattice beading that drapes over his shoulders. The beadwork he wears is artwork created by Philisiwe Dube.
Sound and lyrical curriculum lead of 2021 School of Vernacular Algorithms: Nhlanthla Mhlangu. Image Credit: Tegan Bristow. Photo Credit: Zivanai Matangi.

A Vocabulary

What stood out for me in collection was beadwork, so similar to what I had seen in the Mai Mai Market (Kwa Mai Mai is a healers and medicinal market in downtown Johannesburg. Many beadworkers operate from the market, making traditional adornments for ceremonies and also those of the Shembe religious tradition), and yet so much older.

I had recently been in conversation with a technologist named Lindwe Mtalai who was using knitting to teach coding in South Africa – her principle was that if your grandmother can do it, so can you. The link between the pixel styled knitting pattern and the beadwork was strikingly clear.

Soon I was on a new journey to KwaZulu Natal with Alex Coehlo and Russel Hlongwane to take a closer look at IsiZulu beadwork and Mozambican grass weaving.

What we found was far more than mathematical structure.

Emerging Questions

Staring with ‘What is a Vocabulary for Vernacular Algorithms?’, new questions formed:

  • How do we conflate the mathematical and geometric with an experiential and symbolic encounter with life and community?
  • Can we do this by joining philosophy, culture and the algorithm?
  • How do we represent the environmental encounter with an algorithm?
Multi-colored screen shot from an interactive video installation. Red, blue, and yellow colors are arranged in a pixelated form that resembles beadwork. These geometric repeating patterns vary slightly from frame to frame.
Output screenshot from Interactive Video Installation (3 x 5 m interactive projection built with Processing and Kinect) at the School for Vernacular Algorithms. Image credit: Tegan Bristow.
Multi-colored screen shot from an interactive video installation. White, green, yellow, blue, and red colors are arranged in a pixelated form that resembles beadwork. These geometric repeating patterns vary slightly from frame to frame.
Output screenshot from Interactive Video Installation (3 x 5 m interactive projection built with Processing and Kinect) at the School for Vernacular Algorithms. Image credit: Tegan Bristow.

We ran a series of public facing workshops titled ‘A Vocabulary for Vernacular Algorithm’ to explore these questions. These were with cultural practitioners and coders, aimed at understanding communally the potential for an intergenerational practice and knowledge system to not only build a bridge to learning about technology, but further to critically interrogate contemporary algorithmic thinking.

From A Vocabulary to A School (University of African Futures)

In 2020-21, ‘A School for Vernacular Algorithms’ was formed by invitation from French / Senegalese curator Oulimata Gueye and initially formed part of the exhibition: UFA – University of African Futures in Nantes, France.

The school offered a culturally centered and hands-on learning encounter in three parts; to specifically engage and interrogate algorithmic thinking in Southern African vernacular knowledge systems. We used rhythm, beadwork and creative coding as forms informed the principles developed in the ‘Vocabulary for Vernacular Algorithms’. The School was aimed at challenging with young learners the consequences of systems thinking in contemporary culture, both positive and negative. It explored inter-generational value and a shared communal encounter in knowledge and systems.

The School was led collaboratively with Nhlanhla Mthlangu (algorithms in lyrical and sound cultures), Philisiwe Dube (beadmaking and math) and Tegan Bristow with Laurent Malys (Creative Code).

Tegan Bristow, a white South African woman with blonde shoulder length hair stands at the center of the image against a brick wall painted unevenly in white in the background. She is wearing a knee-length denim dress with three quarter sleeves and black ankle-length leggings underneath and matching sandals. She is wearing a multicolor bead collar that fans out in an intricate lattice over her shoulders. She is also wearing multicolor beaded cuffs on her wrist and around her waist. The cuff and the belt are artworks created by Philisiwe Dube.
Creative Code curriculum lead of 2021 School of Vernacular Algorithms: Tegan Bristow. Image Credit: Tegan Bristow. Photo Credit: Zivanai Matangi
Multi-colored screen shot from an interactive video installation. Red, blue, and yellow colors are arranged in a pixelated form that resembles beadwork. These geometric repeating patterns vary slightly from frame to frame.
Output screenshot from Interactive Video Installation (3 x 5 m interactive projection built with Processing and Kinect) at the School for Vernacular Algorithms. Image credit: Tegan Bristow.

Q&A

What is the context or background that inspired your recipe?

This recipe was born from research to situate pre-colonial African technology culture; an exploration of the Wits Art Museum (Johannesburg) collection through the lens of fractal mathematics (responding to Ron Eglash’s African Fractals); a close exploration of Zulu Beadwork and a series of communally led workshops inviting cultural practitioners and coders to develop the concept of a ‘curriculum for vernacular algorithms’. In 2021 this ongoing engagement become ‘A School for Vernacular Algorithms’, through invitation from curator Oulimata Gueye for University of African Futures; with Nhlanhla Mthlangu, Philisiwe Dube and Laurent Malys as collaborators in African memory games, beadwork and coding respectively.

Which community are you offering the recipe to?

Currently offering to communities (mostly in Africa or within its diaspora) who have a history that engages techne knowledge as part of its traditional and vernacular cultural and creative practices. The philosophical and critical enquiry aims to a) decolonise the notion that technical knowledges are only Western; b) understand the fascinating relationship between technical and cultural knowledges in Africa; c) bring this knowledge into contemporary African computing and digital practices and thereby an intergenerational link in math and culture in Africa; d) build confidence in young African learners on the relevance of their cultures in a technology oriented society.

How does your submission relate to intersectional feminism?

In many traditional African cultures it is women who hold, develop and pass on the techne and mathematical knowledge associated with cultural and aesthetic practices such as woven or beaded structures and the architectural processes of building sustainable homes. This knowledge is intergenerational and vernacular; passed in a community of practice. This knowledge is significantly imbued with the life of that community through which each woman contributes the values of their personality, role and lived experience to a longer trajectory of knowledge in that community. Design, materials and structure shift to meet their influence.

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