Automation, Slavery, Monsters, and Misery in Search of the Whole



Maud Acheampong: … because what ignoring the slave as a technology in history allows is for the iPhone to continue to use slave labor in the making of those technologies. Because the tech industry has successfully kind of decoupled themselves from the sociopolitical world by framing themselves as a necessary good, as a necessary component of everyday life, as something that is more important than perhaps the experiences and the lives of people in the global south.

Tjaša Ferme: Welcome to Theatre Tech Talks, AI, Science, and Biomedia in Theatre, a podcast produced by HowlRound Theatre Commons, a free and open platform for theatremakers worldwide.

Maud, I am so excited to speak with you. Your work is so unique and so delicious, and you have such a fresh new perspective that I can’t wait to ask you more questions to wrap my mind around the universe of you and of your work.

Maud Acheampong is a Ghanaian American new media performance artist interested in soft technologies like misery, ugliness, nostalgia, and the way they manifest in our digital ecologies for better or worse. Through Dainty Funk, their digital avatar and drag persona, Maud takes on monstrous forms and attempts to chronicle these assumed human phenomena with a digital lens.

Wow. Yeah, like I said, so unique and it seems like your work is kind of like at the convergence of performance art, of technology, of philosophy, of cultural and social theories, but at the same time, I have caught in your video that you actually studied bioengineering. And then you went into politics and government. Tell me a little bit about this journey. Where did all of this come from?

Maud: Yes. Oh, my gosh. I began creating artistic content in 2020. Prior to that, I had been a part of a lot of spoken word communities, especially at my alma mater, University of Maryland. I was participating in slam poetry specifically, which has intentional emphasis on performance and your interaction with an audience when you do poetry. But as you mentioned, I had begun my secondary education as a bioengineering major. Part of that was because of my background as a first generation Ghanian American citizen and the culture around what is possible for immigrants to do and make money. And so I had believed the lie that to be an artist, you had to be a struggling artist. And it was only in the last couple of years that I feel like to a certain extent, the creative spirit that I had been stifling was like, I have to get out somehow. I will not stay silent any longer.

And so in 2020 during the pandemic, where most of us had too much time with ourselves, I had finally had the space and time and room to stretch and breathe and play really with what it would mean to be an artist. And Dainty Funk was born through that pontification and thinking around art making. I think that despite my change, moving from bioengineering to government politics to now an artist concerned with digital ecologies, I’m bringing all of those experiences with me in my work.

I feel especially having a background in government politics and the kind of political nature of all things that we interact with in our world, was a really important distinction for me as an artist and always being directly, intentionally in conversation with the political in my work. And then this kind of relationship to public health, my understanding of the body and the way it manifests in public health spaces, I think helps me to translate the ways that the digital world also affects our bodies in ways that we may not be super poised to understand or even think about or connect, that the digital world has a direct effect on our physical selves.

And so I think it’s a testament to how even though maybe the thing that you’re doing currently doesn’t feel related to what you may want to do in the future, for me, I found all of the paths that I went down ultimately led me to this creative career that I’m starting to build for myself.

Tjaša: Yeah, I’m so happy that you managed to find this courage and freedom to basically carve a space for yourself where your vast knowledge of government systems, politics, et cetera, is really the content and informing your performance art, but at the same time, you’re using so much of your creativity to your own satisfaction and obviously to a very compelling artistic body of work.

Maud: Thank you.

Tjaša: Yes, of course. I was so curious. So when I watch your things, I’m trying to figure out what this is. And I feel like this is not the performance art that we’re used to. It looks very different. It has this cinematic quality. Your performance is incredibly subtle and incredibly cinematic. It’s not like getting on an apple box and in some rageful way engaging or looking for an audience, looking to engage with an audience. Your makeup and your masks are super evolved. Your lighting is super cinematic. So I’m curious about the process of how you make things and how the content and the form meet each other and interact.

Maud: I am very visually stimulated by a lot of… color, it’s really, really important to me. And I have a really intimate relationship with horror, specifically the seventies Italian cinema movement in horror, Suspiria by Dario Argento. That’s one of my favorite horror movies. House is also a Japanese horror, anyone is familiar with those two movies, I think they can see the parallels in terms of my color palettes in the work. I enjoy the kind of playfulness in those horror movies where the blood is too red and the windows are a stark neon blue, and the death scenes are very dramatic and unrealistic. And so I’m definitely using those kinds of techniques in the work. But I really appreciate the mention of subtlety because I also want to ground the performances to suspend the disbelief of the viewer. I’m really interested in the blurred line between our physical and digital worlds.

And with the avatars and these characters, these monsters that I’m creating, I want the audience to believe their expressions to be truthful and authentic. And so the makeup ends up being such a powerful tool to make that delineation between characters. Instead of having to overemphasize a certain kind of performance tick, I can really concentrate on what that character looks like. And I really enjoy the medium of self-portrait, specifically turning the camera towards myself and becoming both the voyeur and the captured in that moment. I feel like I can go the farthest with myself, and you’ll never exhaust the medium of yourself. And so I think doing that publicly as well, exploring the selves that inhabit my artistic practice in public is something that’s super important and interesting to me. In terms of what the process looks like. My writing tends to be what happens first; I’ll have a poem or a couple of paragraphs from a script or even reading something that is kind of tying into the work. I then kind of develop a visual language after the written language. For me, the way that I’ve been able to elevate my skills is by committing to practicing very often. So during that period of time when I first started creating art in 2020, I was doing makeup looks almost every single day. I had the time to do that. I certainly do not have the time to do that now. I look back at that period of my life and I do not know how I managed to push out that much work, but I truly believe because of that intense skill building period, I can now count on my skills to create the images that I am imagining.

Tjaša: So you say that you start with content, you first write it out. And is it that you look at a piece and say, you know what? I think that this is one person and then this is a different persona, or is it that you record a part of the piece in a particular persona and then all of a sudden you realize, or maybe you get bored and you say, I’m going to bring another character in. I need to change something up. So how do you mosaic different perspectives and different personas within one piece? Because your pieces are real one person show, they’re like an hour long or half an hour long. They’re substantial.

Maud: Yeah. I think using one of my projects as an example could be helpful. A project I did last year, To Be Or Not To Be On Nostalgia, a large part of the work was based on a book by Svetlana Boym called Nostalgia, where she distinguishes between restorative nostalgia and reflective nostalgia, restorative nostalgia being a desire to return to the past and reflective nostalgia being reflective relationship with the past. And so in the study, there is that emergent, already an emergent visual language that is embedded within the academic language of nostalgia, restorative being this kind of Soviet, “make America great again,” fascist kind of relationship to the past. There’s a visual stimulation that’s already embedded in that definition. And then reflective nostalgia being a kind of ode to memory and nostalgia, a care that leaves the past where it must be, in the past.

And so from there, what happens in my mind is this kind of, what does that look like? How can I communicate those two ideas in a story or in a performance? And so what emerged from that was a look based on cyanotypes, which are these sun printed prints. You use the sun to make these prints, and they’re blue and white. And they have the ephemera of memory but in a softer, more reflective way, in the same way that I had felt or I could see in the definition of reflective nostalgia. And restorative nostalgia had this destructive kind of devilish, even childlike to a certain extent, feeling to it. And then I’m thinking of colors. I think restorative nostalgia in my head has a red, blood-red kind of feel or image or visual hue. And the reflective nostalgia has a more blue and white angelic kind of hue to it.

And from there, the two characters are born. And often the poems are written in tandem with the visual language. And so, I do a lot of story boarding where I grab images from these movies that I enjoy, a lot of makeup campaigns from the nineties by Pat McGrath or Thierry Mugler, these fashion archival moments and kind of story boarding those in tandem with the writing of these poems.

I think, yeah, there are times when I’ll be recording or in the middle of making a piece, and I’ll feel like I think there’s another person or another feeling here that needs to be conveyed more intentionally or more singularly with an entirely different persona or character. I think my process, I don’t want it to be strict. I want to feel like there’s room to stretch and change and grow. And I really think this is a saying that a lot of sculptures say where when they sculpt a piece, it’s them revealing something in the block of clay. And I really identify with that in my work as well, that these ideas are there already. I just have to kind of tease them out, and bring them into the foreground.

Tjaša: I’m curious about your monsters. Are these your personal monsters? Are these mythological monsters? Are these monsters from the sheer resistance to our culture’s obsession with beauty and beauty standards?

Maud: Yes, absolutely. I think the latter is something that I’m really interested in, beauty, desirability. Also, I’m interested in the construct of humanity, the idea that there is a way to be human. The existence of the tool of dehumanization implies that there’s also a humanization process that we must become human. And I think to a certain extent, the monsters are an attempt to reject, to opt out of humanity, to remind us to center the disfigured, the disabled, the monstrous among us, the people among us who are dehumanized and marginalized by this kind of hegemonic language around who is human and who is not, who is savage and who is not. And so I think I seek to embrace this kind of community framework where we center these people that are often on the margins and considered kind of subhuman in the western ideological framework. There is a quote, oh, I’m forgetting the author’s name, but it’s about fungi and the mycelium network and the kind of very technologically, almost advanced communication system of fungi.

Tjaša: Yeah. Is it maybe Paul Stamets?

Maud: Maybe, that sounds really familiar. It might be. And that kind of calling on us to reconnect with the natural world, to not see ourselves as separate from the natural world and to learn from it, to learn from the mycelium on what it means to be in community with one another. And I think to a certain extent, the construct of humanity elevates the human above the natural world or above monstrosity. The wolf, bear, the wild animal, they are slaves to their instincts. They don’t have the mind and the skill of the human. I think that sentiment has always felt like ostracizing. I think it separates us from the land, from learning from all of the creatures that live in the same world that we live in. And so I think the monsters are kind of calling on my audience to think about who they are beyond their humanity and what is left when you strip away that part of yourself and how do we come to a point where to be human is not the prerequisite for life, for the right to life, for community, really.

Tjaša: This reminds me so much of Carolyn Elliot, who’s one of my favorite authors and her Existential Kink talking about taking on the whole experience, all of it. Even where we are failing and we’re imperfect and whatever it is, we just need to allow it, recognize it, allow it, and then enjoy it until it’s fully satiated so that it can become conscious and then integrated. Not for it to become beautiful, but for yourself to be whole, encapsulating the polarities and everything in between. And then she talks a lot about Alester Crowley. He was this incredible magician, had an incredible experience of channeling an incredible text, but at the same time, he took it on himself to be “the monster” and the one that people can criticize and ostracize to embody that in a society because even that brings in a lot of power and wisdom and beauty.

Nothing is one way only. Everything that exists has these properties of the whole, and that’s how he tried to draw attention to what he was teaching. So this very much reminds me of that work, and I’m pretty immersed in this work because it’s made my life so much better. Do you know what I mean? A meditation on why do you like scarcity? Why do you engage in scarcity mentality until you realize that there’s something exciting about it, that it’s like a game. I grew up with Pippi Longstocking who was an explorer, and it was all about finding things on the street, and that’s never left me. So I think that a part of this excitement and need to be resourceful is a part of why in some way I have in the past or maybe still in some ways, enjoyed this game of scarcity.

Maud: Absolutely.

Tjaša: So love your monsters, and I think that the way you embody them, there’s also this beauty and serenity and purity in them. So this transcendent quality of everything being on an equal playing ground totally comes across.

Maud: Thank you. I really love that, Crowley. Yeah, the idea that what humanity asks of us is to leave some part of the world at the door and to abandon that part of the world and opt in for a very specific, very small part of all that life has to offer. And so returning to the whole, returning to the community and all of the members of that community and remembering the conflict of the inanimate and animate world is completely constructed by many times capitalists, colonial powers, by powers that are interested in taking from the land. And in order to take from the land, you must separate yourself from it. You have to convince yourself that you are above it, that it is your divine right to take. And I think when you function in that scarcity, remembering that the world is not yours and how beautiful that is, it is a really freeing expansive experience. And I think the world, the universe tends to respond in kind. It tends to become friendlier, I think, when you are moving through the world in that way.

Tjaša: I love what you said. Basically the West’s division of subject and object and how it’s the object is always, well, objectified and looked down upon. And this is not universal, of course. Recently I just read Jeremy Narby’s book, it’s called Intelligence in Nature. And it talks a lot about, he’s basically looking for nature’s intelligence/consciousness, and everybody’s sending him to Japan to go and talk to their researchers. And really he found out that everything hinges, whether we believe in the intelligence in nature, it hinges upon do we believe that the nature can be conscious or do we react to it, see it as an object, as an inanimate object that serves us?

And so in Shintoism, there is belief. People make burials for their objects. Let’s say that have used a comb or a personal care object for a while, and then you want to separate from it. You would create a ritual, and then you would bury the object. How beautiful. So there is actually a lot of research, I’m sure it’s from other parts of the world as well, but specifically from Japan, a lot of research on butterflies, on slimes, on molds, on mycelium. And what seems to be the core of the research is how the intelligence works, meaning that there is a predisposition that nature is intelligence because we’re asking how it works, not is it there to begin with.

Maud: Absolutely. You saying that, it sparks this kind of relationship that the West has with consumerism as well, that forces the human in the western context to also be unable to rend themselves away from the object. So the object is so integral to our identities, our lives, that there is a blurred line already between subject and object. But instead of that deference or the recognition of this intelligent nature, there is a kind of necessity almost to reject the consciousness of these inanimate objects in order to participate in the consumer culture. Because if you must part with your items in such a dedicated way, then it prevents you from mindlessly consuming. And you also have, instead of having a connection to the object, you’re connected to the consumption specifically, which is in itself a very different, often destructive relationship with objecthood.

Tjaša: That’s right. We don’t look at objects as if they have agency. In order for us to satisfy our consumer needs, they just become a tool because if you perceive your objects that surround you as something that have soul, well, how many souls can you actually tend to, right? So if there’s just this endless chain of coming and going and no real relationship, well, I mean I think that’s probably where our emptiness comes from because you get satisfied by a relationship and communion. That’s what’s spiritual and that’s what really feeds humans. I am curious in your views on technology that you subverge, that you criticize, also that you use as your platform of your performance. In one of your pieces, you say that a slave is a technology. I love that. In one of our previous conversations, somebody said that a potato is a technology. So I would love to hear more about that.

Maud: Yeah, I think I can speak especially in the western perspective, because I think this is a particularly western relationship with technology. Technology has a really intimate relationship with militarization, with weaponization, with surveillance, but it’s not an inherent relationship. It’s an imposed relationship. This idea that in a world so technologically advanced, why have we not gotten past a capitalist framework when automation as a concept could potentially replace work in a non-antagonistic way? But because we live in this capitalist framework, the presence of automation and technology acts as a thing that is directly at odds with laborers and people. And there’s this fear that these technologies will replace us to some capacity. So I think for me, there’s also this lie in the West that technology has a neutral face, that when we have these technological advancements, that they are in whole for the better of society.

Ignoring the slave as a technology in history allows…for the iPhone to continue to use slave labor in the making of those technologies because the tech industry has successfully kind of decoupled themselves from the sociopolitical world by framing themselves as a necessary good…as something that is more important than perhaps the…lives of people in the global south.

And because of that, we must ignore all of the horrors that go into making these new devices. So I think reconnecting the historical relationship with technology, technology as object or tool reminds us the kind of racialized, marginalized relationship that technology has always had with non-white non-men in western culture where technology has been used to subjugate and watch and keep account of people and communities to keep the status quo. And so I think it’s important to reconnect that history so that when we move forward, which I believe is possible, that those historical frameworks are being directly responded to and prevented in these new technological frameworks that we are interested in. Because what ignoring the slave as a technology in history allows is for the iPhone to continue to use slave labor in the making of those technologies because the tech industry has successfully kind of decoupled themselves from the sociopolitical world by framing themselves as a necessary good, as a necessary component of everyday life, as something that is more important than perhaps the experiences and lives of people in the global south.

And there’s also a direct decoupling between the consumer and the product because what we see when we buy an iPhone is not the laborers. We see a phone in a pretty box in a white store, and that complicity that the consumer participates in is also replicated in our governments when we are giving out tax dollars to governments that seem to be able to use this money in ways that we may not personally agree with. But the American apparati depends on this complicity to keep the citizenry from doing anything about it because, oh, we all have blood on our hands. That kind of sentiment, it allows inaction. And so it’s very important to remember tech in context, in historical context. Even with climate change activists who are advocating for solar panels, there’s a lack of intersectionality when we think about where do those technologies come from, who is exploited to get those technologies?

And we understand in an intersectional framework that climate change is also something that is racialized. It’s also something that you can use a feminist framework for climate change. There are so many ideologies that once you incorporate them, you find that those communities tend to be the most affected by climate change. But that movement tends to be decoupled from politics, from the political sentiments of race and sex and sexuality and gender. And because of that, often people believe climate change, the movement, as one of the more successful movements, a movement that tends to not be as violently opposed by the state. But recently, as Greta Thunberg began to align with her politics around Gaza, we’ve seen this backlash of climate change activists wishing to keep their hands clean in terms of their relationship to politics, this idea that the climate is somehow apolitical and is not also participating in the world powers.

And I think that’s the same kind of sentiment around technology, this false neutral space that allows money to be given to these ventures for the good of the world, when really it’s the good of a specific part of the world and a specific people of the world, but not all people and not the whole world. And I believe that tech has the capacity and possibility to be helpful for everyone. There’s a disability framework within deaf communities about subtitles, where if you engage in accessibility framework, it’s helpful for everyone, not just the disabled. If you put subtitles on a movie or a screening, you are not just helping deaf people, you’re helping people with audio processing issues, you’re helping people with ADHD. You’re helping people who perhaps have problems keeping up with understanding what’s happening without the words to follow along. This is to frame technology as a tool or a community member that can be helpful to all of us, will also benefit all of us more than it would to cater to a specific kind of person.

Tjaša: Yeah. Wow. Yeah, that was a lot. That was a whole meal. Whole meal. Thank you. I’m going to keep chewing on this, but yeah, right on. Beautiful. I know that your next piece is going to be about AI and automation. You can plug it in. When is this coming out? What can you reveal about it?

Maud: Yes. I am working on a piece about the connection between slavery and automation and the current rippling that we’re seeing of that relationship in AI and the fear that a lot of people have of the replacement of creative work with AI technologies. That should be coming out in March. Currently, I’m working on a piece on grief and misery in digital spaces and using grief and misery as a tool to create community and to find each other in the midst of a very dark and apocalyptic kind of world that we’re living in. That’s called Blue Dark and in the Shape of Me, and I’m hoping to release that at the beginning of the year. So keep tuned, keep your eyes peeled for that.

Tjaša: That’s amazing. And we can find you on YouTube?

Maud: Yes, you can find me on YouTube at Dainty Funk, on Instagram at Dainty Funk, and sometimes, occasionally I post on TikTok, but it’s not my favorite platform. If you want to get the full scoop of what I do, YouTube is the place to go. I also have a Patreon under Dainty Funk where I do some more in depth live study sessions where I go through some of the things that I’ve been reading, more specifically educational format so that people can connect some of the theories that I’ve been thinking about to the work that I’ve been making.

Tjaša: Fantastic. I’m so looking forward, and just because you mentioned grief and misery, and I remember that in your artistic statement, you mentioned that those are soft technologies. Maybe just a sentence about that, about what are soft technologies? Did you come up with this terminology?

Maud: I am sure someone said it before me. I haven’t seen anyone else say it, but I feel like that’s not crazy. I was thinking about communication tools and communication technologies and grief and love and sadness being the avenue, the lens through which we connect with each other, how grief is a transfiguration of love in a really beautiful way, and how the process of transmutation in and of itself is a kind of technology. And I guess from the soft kind of imagery, I’m thinking of the body as a soft place where these technologies can live and thrive, and also soft as in human, as in community, as in something that we can ease ourself into as opposed to hard, which can be a little more overwhelming and daunting and less easy to understand. I think soft technologies involve more of an embodied knowledge that we share with each other.

Tjaša: That’s just so brilliant. Thank you for going there, and thank you for bringing this in. And I guess from what you were talking about it, I saw an image that grief is almost like a monster of love. And I love that you’re saying that emotions basically are transmutating, transforming, and therefore are like technologies or are technologies in the space of a body. Beautiful. Wow, I feel like I could keep going with you.

Maud: I know, I could talk with you forever. This is awesome.

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