Her First Book, an AI App Launch, an Exhibition at the Smithsonian, and a Ford Global Fellowship: LMC Alumna Nettrice Gaskins is Having a Year
Posted November 29, 2021
Nettrice Gaskins, Ph.D. Digital Media 2014, was recently named a 2021 Ford Global Fellow and will join a global community of 72 active fellows working to combat inequality through innovative solutions in their respective fields. If that was not already enough of an accomplishment, Gaskins also released her first full-length book in August, helped to launch a performance-based artificial intelligence (AI) app in September, and her artwork will be on display in the FUTURES exhibition at the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building in Washington D.C. from now until July 6, 2022.
Gaskins is an African American digital artist, academic, cultural critic, and advocate of STEAM fields currently working as the assistant director of the Lesley STEAM Learning Lab at Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass. We sat down with her and talked about the work she is doing as an emerging leader in STEAM.
Tell us about your book.
My first full-length book, Techno-Vernacular Creativity and Innovation, was released in August of this year by The MIT Press. The book explores STEAM learning that engages students from underrepresented ethnic communities in culturally relevant and inclusive maker education.
The book aims to shift the paradigm around equity in education, especially as it relates to underrepresented and under-resourced groups, and the overlooked practitioners, educators, and students from diverse communities.
Some projects that I did while I was a Ph.D. student at Georgia Tech, including some residencies and research with Indigenous students in Mexico, made it into the book. This early work was not necessarily for my thesis, but it led to the design of my methodology.
Can you talk about the “Artificial Intelligence + Carnival + Creativity” project and app you recently launched?
Together with Vernell Noel, assistant professor in the School of Architecture at Georgia Tech, who is originally from Trinidad and Tobago, and Valencia James, a Barbadian performer and researcher whose work focuses on the intersection between dance, theatre, technology, and activism, we created an AI that tracks and celebrates Black joy and Trinidad Carnival. The project received a Mozilla Creative Media Award and the app launched in September of this year.
We hired my former independent study student with a Haitian background to create the app that was based on a machine learning model that tracks key points on the body from videos. Caribbean dancers and other participants joined us in Zoom parties, and we used the Carnival AI app to capture, track, and visualize our movements.
I hope to amplify this research for the Ford Global Fellowship, because it brings audiences to the AI space that would otherwise not be there. They see the art on social media, and they enjoy it, so then they begin to follow along. Then, they start to ask questions about how it's made. In some cases, people start to use the tools, and then they'll tag me on social media to let me know that they're doing it. It’s usually young people, but even some people I went to high school with are also experimenting with it, so it’s not always tied to a person’s generation.
Engaging with these diverse audiences is allowing us to knock down some of the barriers to access that have plagued digital technology for many, many years. I think that we have an opportunity to make the connections and really help people come into this field as it is emerging and evolving.
How did your artwork come to be featured at the Smithsonian FUTURES exhibition?
I had been talking to the curators before the pandemic about possible projects, and this opportunity presented itself to create portraits of the “featured futurists” in the FUTURES exhibit. Eleven images, which I generated using deep learning AI based on DeepDream, are included in the exhibit.
The curators gave me a list of people, including Helen Keller, Octavia Butler, Alexander Graham Bell, and Buckminster Fuller, who would be in the exhibit as people they feel represent a diverse group and represent the future. They also insisted that I do a self-portrait, so I am one of the 11.
What is the Ford Global Fellowship and what will you be doing as a fellow?
The Ford Global Fellowship is a two-year program that aims to connect and support the next generation of leaders from around the world who are advancing innovative solutions to end inequality through shared learning, building and strengthening connections across borders, and developing a supportive, interconnected cohort from a wide variety of sectors.
Of the 48 total 2021 Ford Fellows, I am one of six U.S.-based fellows. In total, there are 72 active fellows as the 2019 fellowships were extended an additional two years.
We’re focusing on equity. In this case, in the backdrop of the global pandemic, how the pandemic has exposed inequalities and maybe even increased inequality in different ways. How the fellows will tackle equity in their own ways is something we'll explore together.
Why did you select Georgia Tech for your Ph.D. studies, and how has the Digital Media program benefitted you?
When I started my Ph.D. studies, I was focused on engagements with technology and science from areas like hip hop culture and this evolving Afrofuturistic production that was happening around me. I had met some faculty from LMC on Demo Day who seemed to be enthusiastic about some of the same topics I was interested in learning about.
Dr. Celia Pearce, my thesis advisor, and I got a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to look at advancing STEM through culturally situated arts-based learning. We hosted a multi-day workshop at Georgia Tech, with folks from the STEM side meeting with artists from underrepresented communities to talk about how we can merge and bridge these different disciplines and subject areas in ways that might engage groups that normally would not be engaged and STEM.
From the workshop evaluation, it was suggested that I continue this work by building a STEAM lab. An opportunity presented itself around the same time I was graduating to build such a lab inside of a high school for the visual and performing arts in Boston, the Boston Arts Academy (BAA). As an informal post-doc project, I expanded on my research as a student at Georgia Tech, then rolled right into the STEAM lab work, which put me at ground level with teachers and students.
It wasn’t just the funding from the NSF, but the support from Georgia Tech faculty and Ivan Allen College that allowed these connections and gatherings to happen, which then led me to open my first STEAM lab at BAA, publish a book, and now work at the Lesley STEAM Learning Lab, which had already been established when I joined.
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Cassidy Chreene Whittle
School of Literature, Media, and Communication | School of Modern Languages