Mother Cyborg: Crafting Our Digital Legacy
On ViewStamps Gallery, University of Michigan
May 26–July 23, 2022
Mother Cyborg (aka Diana J Nucera) is a “queer as fuck,” Latina digital justice activist, a 2021 United States Artists Fellow, and a 2022 Knight Arts and Tech fellow based in Detroit. Her ever-expanding practice includes music-making, performance, education, community organizing, gardening, research, writing, and publishing.
Over the last couple of years, she has created a remarkable series of quilts investigating issues of identity, digital justice, and the all-consuming digital mega-machine with which we are increasingly codependent. Nine of these quilts form the core of her first solo exhibition, which is on view at the Stamps Gallery in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
The first piece in the show, Mestizos404 (2020), is Mother Cyborg’s earliest quilt. It is a personal and heartfelt work, made all the more powerful by its technical imperfections. It also points to some of her broader concerns. The title concatenates a reference to her mixed heritage with “404,” the HTTP term for information not found. Mother Cyborg comes from a lineage of Latina seamstresses but feels that processes of assimilation have denied her access to this ancestral knowledge. The quilt, with its strings of directional prompts, is about navigating the pain of not belonging by “making your way with instinct, curiosity, and self-love.”
Both quilting and information technology have their languages and structures. Depending on your background, the triangular directional prompts in Mestizos404 could read as either quilting’s “flying geese” pattern or the ASCII characters for up, down, left, and right. This is typical of Mother Cyborg’s deft blurring of the lines between traditional quilting and the digital world. Most important for the current show is her adoption of the “tumbling blocks” pattern as a versatile visual metaphor for exploring the large-scale, interconnected digital system(s) that increasingly structure our daily existence.
In two relatively small pieces, The Platforms Keep Segregating us 1 and 2 (both 2022), Nucera uses the tumbling blocks’ repeated isometric cubes to signal big data’s need to aggregate and compartmentalize—sometimes known as “cubing.” The title refers to the homologous effect where the algorithmically-driven suggestions made by tech platforms serve to segregate society into separate echo chambers based on digital identity.
Data criminalization, in which a person’s digital identity increases the likelihood of becoming the subject of unwarranted, and often racialized, policing, is a particular subject of interest for Mother Cyborg. In Data Crunchers (2022), she visualizes how these systems appear to those on the outside. Her answer is an elegant-looking but impenetrable federation of six-sided stars. Only when you look again do you see it is an optical illusion; all you are really looking at is the same old tumbling blocks pattern.
In The System’s System (2022), Mother Cyborg imagines a window in the repeating pattern of Data Crunchers. The rich oranges give the impression of looking into a fiery furnace, and the previously hidden cubes, some adorned with the all-seeing eye, invoke a sense of magic, masonry, and generally forbidden knowledge. The quilt’s message seems to be that investigation into the inner logic of the digital mega-machine is unlikely to be easy or welcomed.
In their 2018 zine A People’s Guide to Artificial Intelligence, also on display in the exhibition, Mother Cyborg and her collaborator Mimi Onuoha ask, provocatively, “WHAT IS AN ALGORITHM?” If the question appears startling in its directness, it may be because we have become accustomed to the spotlight pointing in the opposite direction, with algorithms directing their gaze on us. Mother Cyborg’s use of zines and quilts, both quintessentially DIY forms of media, can be seen as grassroots statements of non-conformity to this power dynamic.
Compared to Data Crunchers and The System’s System, Landscapes of Potential (2022) is an altogether happier quilt. The background is a riotous patchwork of colors, shapes, textures, and stitch patterns. The tumbling blocks are still there, but they have escaped their rigid structure and exploded into numerous, less visually dominant constellations. Mother Cyborg may be a relentless critic of technology, but ultimately her work is “motivated by a vision of the future where the greatest possibilities for humanity and technology merge.”
The show’s largest and arguably most striking quilt is Data Stream (2022), in which lines of glittering zeros and ones run, waterfall-like, over a vertically aligned patchwork of colorful fabric. In conversation, Mother Cyborg reflects that the digital data stream itself is neutral and even beautiful in its own way; it is how we utilize the data to reflect either the best or worse of humanity’s potential that is important. If, through her quilts, Mother Cyborg wants us to be hopeful about the future of technology, she surely also wants us to proceed with caution, engaging our hands and hearts as much as our minds.