Appalachian Futurism & Southern Constellations – Elsewhere, North Carolina
By Ash Smith
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. — Arthur C. Clarke
This summer, before arriving at my artist residency at Elsewhere Museum, I was traveling to my childhood home in the mountains of western North Carolina when my dad swerved off the road to show me the cloud. It was the Apple iCloud, and yep, it is Apple’s largest data storage facility yet. Shortly thereafter, the story about GenX, a toxic chemical leaking from the Chemours/Dupont corporation into the Cape Fear River Basin, spread across the state accompanied by a low grade panic. From the moon-running stories of my own family history, I understand the function of unseen systems. I seek them out. I want to get to know them. That night in the Appalachian foothills I was giddy to see the physical manifestation of the cloud, and this experience would stay with me when I got to Elsewhere.
Like a slaughterhouse, the Apple facility stands concealed 2,645 miles away from the glamorous showrooms of Silicon Valley. The massive structure cuts into the subtropical green land, anonymous, impenetrable, militarized. It is the bowels or maybe the actual excrement of the Internet, but it is also a repository for the dreaming collective, an imprint of the “consensual hallucination”. It contains histories, memories, surplus and labor. In my mind, the word “cloud” shrouds the facility, coolly, as if it is an immaterial thing. However, I must consider the bodies that live and work there—like my aunt and uncle—as well as the land, the air, digital labor, and, eventually, digital decay.
Upon arrival at Elsewhere in Greensboro, it is not an understatement the weight one feels of being surrounded by its objects. Elsewhere is a museum set within a former thrift store that reinvents old things to build collaborative futures by supporting creative projects, learning initiatives, and public works. The museum is built on Sylvia Gray’s objects and materials she obtained during the 58 years she operated a thrift store (1939-1997). Elsewhere is a thing tank and a laboratory. It is, I quickly learned, too many things to list here, and that’s part of it’s grandeur.
At Elsewhere, I was part of the Southern Constellations cohort, one of six artists from the southeastern United States. Together we lived, cooked and learned alongside interns, staff and objects. We were asked to create a project using the museum collection that would remain behind after our departure. Initially, we talked about objects containing trauma and the desire to let these objects outside to experience sunlight again.
Elsewhere is a closed ecosystem; anything deemed “collection” does not leave the building—dust, hair, fabric, toys, nothing, no way. However, the digital slips out. This inspired conversation among the Southern Constellations cohort about the objects being held captive as collection and their correlation to digital photographs held forever in the cloud. “Forever” is a slippery concept: things age, corrupt, rot and disintegrate, even the digital. Which would outlast which: the 1960s toy dog or its digital image? Will they both outlast humans? Both non-digital and digital objects sit tamed—for now—in different spaces, one at Elsewhere and one in the cloud.
To think about this more, we created twitter bots that served as digital avatars of some of the objects inside Elsewhere. A digital toy soldier now tweets, “You’re one piece of many. We’re all in this together” whenever someone asks, “How did I get stuck here?” These newly assigned digital objects create object-bot-poetry in a kind of endless labor loop. Brought together in a new relationship, there is the materiality of the wood, organic polymers in the plastic and the natural world embedded within—then there is the AI-ness of the bot—conjoined towards techno-animism.
In our hyper-ized quest for connection, information and knowing, most of us incorporate dating algorithms, fitbits, and smart devices into our daily lives. As an intervention to the rationalism of science and the
over-quantified self, I often return to my Southern Gothic Appalachian roots of storytelling, conjuring, dark humor and “witchy methodologies”. I search back through the healing methods of my grandma and the use of dowsing rods to locate water. I think about all of the other kinds of ancient technologies that have been passed on to me through people who have had a deep relationship with nature, animals and the spiritual world. Simultaneously, I find the ability for transcendence within the realm of the digital. I find myself in ecstatic moments of communion, something ritual, spiritual and deeply profound with digital technology—and that is exactly what happened while 3D printing during my residency. Appalachian folk magic and the 3D printer are both forms of technology that ask us to believe in what we can’t yet see in order to make something physically manifest. At The Forge next to Elsewhere, I created a dowsing rod, an orgone pyramid and parts of a drone using a 3D printer. This process for me was an extreme form of digital intimacy. I sensed the printer as it transformed my digital object into a physical object, and I used a kind of printing methodology that can only be described as witchy. I held performance rituals in the makerspace where I would meticulously embed pieces from the Elsewhere collection—dust, paint chips, doll parts, words from books—into the 3D prints, while printing. I learned that you don’t bring glitter in the makerspace, but that’s for another article.
This technique of embedding is a pas de deux between human and machine, a quick, deliberate placement of objects inside the print before the arm of the robot-printer comes back around. If something isn’t placed properly, the printer and the print could be sent into havoc. I got to know the printer mutually: when to put my fingers in, when to quickly pull them out. This was a careful operation of focused energy. I turned off the lights, meditated, sang, and danced. These 3D prints are not simply speculative art objects, but sigils embedded with intentions. They are tools. In the right hands, the dowsing rod might be able to find GenX-less water—a stretch perhaps—but one quick search online reveals people are already doing similar things.
The digital points us to other kinds of sensing systems: the psychic, the biochemical and inside the closed ecosystem of Elsewhere. I considered the bacterial and fungal systems within. I took swab samples from a toy, a ghost room wall, a shoe, a book, a swing and a keypad and placed them on Agar plates. Over the next several weeks these samples continued to grow and to emerge. Each plate contained its own uniquely patterned world. New entanglements between species decenter the human and welcome assemblages akin to Donna Haraway’s notion of “becoming with” asking who “we” will become when species meet. Similarly, recent research around our gut microbiome asks, “who’s in control: the human host or the microbiome?” The extra-human may be able to teach us valuable lessons about “becoming” with other species and contemplating these in-between worlds that could destabilize data-driven systems of knowledge and information.
During the residency, through inspiring conversations and research around unseen systems and local issues specific to North Carolina and Elsewhere—the cloud, GenX in the water, local bacteria and fungal ecologies—ideas were able to incubate and to expand notions of technology, spirituality and Southern futures.
On the last day of my residency—driving through Appalachia in my friend Sheryl’s Audi with smart-internet-of-things-sensors—we hit a very large coyote. The Audi is still in disrepair and the coyote shows up in my dreams. Even though my dog Sandro was not present for the collision, he senses what happened and is still giving me a hard time about it.
*Thanks to the Southern Constellations Elsewhere cohort for the conversations and endless inspiration: Saba Taj, Joshua Moton, Rontherin Ratliff, William Cordova, Yatta Zoker, Emily Ensminger, Guido Villalba Portel, Fhalyshia Orians, Sophia Schultz, Ava Zelkowitz, Yansa Crosby, Jordan Delzell, Adam Matonic, Koy Smith, George Scheer