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March 2023: One Work (Pt. 1) SmooOOoOoooooOooth Operator: the eternal outlays ennoble and rekindle an unlikely savior
writing is hard; "shyness is shit" (Octavia Estelle Butler); machine learning; divination; translation
Bismillah. We begin everything with the name of Allah. We say Bismillah to initiate an act to acknowledge the intention and the ethics we carry with all that follows Bismillah.
We are finally…back.
Heads up: This newsletter is very thick. She’s coming in at almost 4000 words, so, like, grab some coffee or some snacks? And it is probably best to read it in the browser to ensure the images are not pixelated ☺️
Playing Catch Up
Can you believe we are in March…of 2023? It does not feel natural at all.
This newsletter has been a challenge-based activity. In a workshop on Valentine’s Day, into the Zoom void, I shouted, ‘I hate writing,’ and went on about writing sometimes feeling like non-consensual edging. I wonder about the over-extension of the metaphor as a poetics, a poetics of yearning where we desire to not only make our writing do a particular thing; we also pray for the perfect analogies so that our process can be translatable to someone who has opted not to endure the fickle task writing. I do not hate writing; I dislike the available interfaces for writing (I have taken to writing essays on large walls) and the temporal constraints on when writing can or should be shared (What if I need four years to craft the 500-word reflection on an exhibition that has come and gone? Urgent and relevant to and for whom?).
Starting this newsletter has introduced me to a new energy of audacity. Like, I really asked people to sign up to read my rambles and publically categorized this as a humor page!
Sometimes, when I see a shiny object and get behind on newsletters, I tell myself,…stop…writing. Then I read a reader’s reflection (Thank you, Lauren Williams!) on my newsletter and am reminded that I should keep riding this strange wave if for no other reason than it helps me meet new people :)
Speaking of writing, I am sharing something on March 4th at the Center for Art, Research and Alliances in New York with some lovely folks!
Black History Month came and went, and I didn’t even get to celebrate. Tonight, I am turning on my cheap disco lights and jamming to Earth, Wind, and Fire until I pass out (at 9 pm)! I have had a good time the last few months.
My cute mama came to see me from California!
I was a visiting artist lecturer at Dartmouth College, where I saw the most beautiful snow, had the best chocolate croissant, met such talented artists, and a student taught me about the history of Dartmouth (before it was an Ivy League) as an “Indian” school for assimilation.
I finalized my divorce, ate an overly sweet cookie from Insomnia Cookies, and bought a new pair of boots. Ya girl is finally (legally) single and ready to cautiously and intentionally mingle post-Ramadan. Send your selects! (joking, but also…)
I began putting my ADHD supports into place, and so far, things are going well!
“Shyness is shit.”
I made a big deal about not using the newsletter to talk about shows because you all have google. After a conversation with a friend last year and then a bit of unpacking in therapy, I realized that I don’t particularly enjoy talking about my shows, or myself really, because I fear taking up to much space, but this is my newsletter (and my life), so I will swell 😏. More importantly, I am proud of the work I am doing. As Octavia Estelle Butler notes, “shyness is shit” and I am working hard to not be as shy about things going forward.
This year I will open four solo shows, publish a new book, and a few other projects will be released and hope to use the newsletters to give some greater insight into the things I am thinking about alongside these projects.
First up: Kohl Gallery! Thank you to the entire team at Washington College in Chestertown, MD. I stayed in the most lovely home for a week and enjoyed my first snow of the season.
SmooOOoOoooooOooth Operator: the eternal outlays ennoble and rekindle an unlikely savior | Kohl Gallery and the Rose O'Neill Literary House at Washington College | January 30 - March 7, 2023
Kohl Gallery is pleased to announce the solo exhibition SmooOOoOoooooOooth Operator: the eternal outlays ennoble and rekindle an unlikely savior, featuring the work of artist Kameelah Janan Rasheed. Rasheed will present photographs, videos, wall drawings, and prints on various substrates. Together, these works create an evolving ecosystem of Rasheed’s ongoing research into machine learning and its relationship to translation, Islamic mysticism, divination practices, the eroticism of constraint and edging, and call-and-response traditions.
The works in the show were created from 2020 onward in an unexpected longitudinal translation process. When I say translation, it is essential to note that I am thinking about translation as an attempt to get closer to understanding something in a different language, register, substrate, interface etc. It is a poetics of contact, of touch.
While I am interested in the resulting “translation,” I am most interested in the series of material and immaterial interactions that make the translation possible. So not the final phrase or image or note, but the atmosphere, the affordances, the beliefs, the container, and the interface that allowed the process.
The work in this show went through several stages (and is still going).
March 2020: When the United States began to shut down in mid-March 2020, I was at MASSMoCA installing Kissing Through a Curtain. I included a complete installation as well as a mini-workbook for the publication. You can see the images below. Thank you, Chang Yuchen, for being a long-distance collaborator, inspiration, and co-thinker. We reconnected while she was there for a residency, and she introduced me to Walter Benjamin’s text connecting translation to the poetics of the tangent line. Chang Yuchen bridged my oversized interests in tangents and orbits with translation. The tangent line as the feral moment.
September 2020: I was invited by P! to facilitate a generative writing activity over Zoom. I asked participants to select the text nearest them and type four words into the chat window. Using these words, I had 37 minutes to combine these words into a piece of writing. I created a screen recording of the writing process.
April 2021: I was invited to present at the Computer Mouse Conference, and Rasheed presented Algorithmic Music Composition Using Approximate Mouse Coordinates. Inspired by FLUXUS member Benjamin Patterson’s Ants (1960-62), I reviewed the screen recording of her 2020 writing process with P! and translated the mouse coordinates into sound by creating a simple algorithm (an if/then … if this number of dots, then play this note) that established a relationship between the concentration of mouse locations in different quadrants to output sound.
February 2022: I continued to play with this piece of writing through OuLiPo tools like N + 7 and other constrained writing techniques, arriving at a sentence that felt most akin to Lyn Hejinian’s description of an “open text”.
the eternal outlays ennoble and rekindle an unlikely savior
September 2022: For the first iteration of Smooooooooooooooth Operator at University of Georgia - Athens, I worked with the aforementioned sentence in collaboration with a text-to-image machine-learning tool called MidJourney.
Using a specific syntax, text tokenization, and specific commands, I created a series of output images. I am interested in authorship ethics within text-to-image art, and I considered points of human mediation such as the uniqueness of the input text, the process of combining output images with noise, flecks, and annotations from existing work and gestures to create new compositions, and the choice of printing substrate. The final asemic compositions were printed on acetate, silk fabric, photo paper, and CNC-carved pieces mounted on wood. Alongside those works is a video work called Smooth Operetta.
Throughout the creation of this work, I reflected on the relationship between machine learning and call-and-response — as well as between translation and call-and-response. Across both speculative relationships, I am interested in the formulaic qualities of machine learning and translation. I am curious about the affect of surprise when getting an image created from a text-to-image bot or a translated text from an automated translator. In both situations, the output cannot exceed our imagination, if that makes sense. Like, what we receive (output image, text, etc.) is a direct response to the parameters we’ve created and is based upon what we’ve contributed to a training data set…so then, what is the root of the thrill with these processes? I want to argue, maybe, that the thrill, the erotics dare I, of processes like text-to-image and an automated translation is the reanimation of surprise when encountering four scenarios:
the request and the erotics of dominance:The discovery that you derive immense pleasure from giving unlimited commands to a machine with no other ‘choice’ and, quite frankly, purpose, other than to provide you with what you request. There is something else I want to say about how the interface for these tools and transactional cultures, but the thought is still relatively nascent.
(the output isn’t as important as being in the position to make the request)
the glitch and the erotics of novelty:The discovery that you derive immense pleasure from novelty. This occurs when the output somehow is not just a composite of existing data, but in some way creates something new and uncategorizable. Consider Roland Barthes’ Jeunes Chercheurs (1972):
Maybe this is a funky translation of a text that introduces some OuLiPian and Freudian slip that offers a new syntax that makes other worlds possible. Or this might be an output image that benefits from underfitting.
(the output is significant because it is novel AND allows for future *things* to come into existence because of the new form or methodology it will enable)
the innards and an erotics of the chase:The discovery that you derive immense pleasure from chasing the knowledge of how something works rather than what it produces. The output is *cute*, but if there wasn’t a fully rendered output, it would be okay. The pleasure here comes from not just understanding seeds, parameters, training sets, etc. but from the mysticism of said pursuit. Similar to the glitch, there is an interest in what exceeds the machine.
(the output isn’t as crucial as the possibly ecstatic process of trying to know into something)
against (public) intentions and an erotics of deliberate misuse:The discovery that you derive pleasure from intentionally misusing or bending a tool or technology. I am thinking about machine learning and methods of divination. We can bend to make something like scrying, whereby one might use a text-to-image bot or a translation tool to look into and beyond the results to foretell something. What if the machine learning outputs were not to be used externally but as an internal relic or talisman?
(the output is significant not because it fulfills a formulaic request but because it provides both data and a substrate for a cosmological algorithm to be overlaid)
Imagine for a moment that a daily divination practice was to
Before you sleep, write a question you need to answer on a piece of acetate paper and place it under your mattress. Ensure your question is written large enough to cover at least 80% of the surface area.
Wake up and remove the acetate paper from under the mattress.
In MidJourney, after “/image” type one sentence describing the previous night’s dream in no more than 12 words.
In MidJourney, when prompted with four image versions (V1, V2, V3, or V4), upscale the version # that is closest to the current moon phase (new moon or waxing crescent (V1); first quarter or waxing gibbous (V2); full moon or waning gibbous (V3); third quarter or waning crescent (V4)
Save the selected image. Invert the image’s color.
Enlarge the color inverted image and fit your entire screen.
Overlay your acetate on your screen. Peer through the counters (partially enclosed circular or curved negative space) of each letter. The answer to your question is whatever is visible through the counters. All other imagery should be disregarded.
This was a long way to say; for me, the thrill of machine learning has never been the output.
January 2023: I continued this line of inquiry at Kohl Gallery with a new painting and some new thinking. Foregrounded in both iterations of the show is my concern with the “menace of smoothness” or the tendency toward standardization and forced patterning by disregarding dirty data (or noise) to fulfill the audience’s expectations of smooth, final (and digestible) images. We should have other desires and expectations. I am thinking of Ashon Crawley’s essay That There Might Be Black Thought: Nothing Music and the Hammond B-3. He reflects on the Bilali script also known as Ben Ali’s Diary. Written by Bilali, an enslaved man on Sapelo Island, this 13-page document as Crawley notes, has five pages “of which cannot be translated to any linguistic rhetoric or grammar, thus remaining opaque and impenetrable for any reader.” Crawley’s reflection on impenetrability leads to his invitation “to write the necessity to think a different relation to objects, objects that are supposed to be easily captured as flesh on mediums…”
What if comprehension or capture were not the immediate impulses when encountering an image or text? I wanted to create images through MidJourney that were asemic as well as paintings, photographs, prints, and a video that were in-process — like catching something in the process of happening. What, then do we do with something that has not yet come into itself?
What follows is a reflection on each piece in the show.
I. MidJourney Prints
(asemics, scribbles, black letters, alphabet) eternal, outlays, ennoble, rekindle, unlikely savior (start) | 2022, 30” x 20”, CNC Relief Carving (fabrication by Raphael Zollinger)
From L to R:
(asemics, scribbles, black letters, alphabet) eternal, outlays, ennoble, rekindle, unlikely savior (eight circles) | 2022, 24” x 24”, Acetate
(asemics, scribbles, black letters, alphabet) eternal, outlays, ennoble, rekindle, unlikely savior (eight grids) | 2022, 150” x 17”, Silk Fabric
Many Moons | 2022, 50” x 7”, Vellum
the eternal outrages (asemics, scribbles, black letters, alphabet) x (black and white, surrealist, conceptual, typography), eternal, outlays, ennoble, rekindle, unlikely savior (eight grids) | 2022, 65” x 35”, Matte Archival Inkjet Print with ¼ inch Sintra and illustration board
stuttering toward a complete _________, I | 2020-2023, 64” x 44”, Monoprints, oil stick and India ink drawings, hand marbled paper, mirrors
When the lockdown began, I would sit in my house and make monoprints. I accidentally started marbling paper because I left a shallow container with leftover ink and left the paper face down. I picked it up, and I saw that it was marbled. I just started creating all these prints without an agenda but was not happy with them as these individually existing prints to be framed. I just started to chop them up and thought about them as these little sample pieces or these little objects that I could maybe recombine later. I was thinking about music sampling, except in this case, of creating the “original”, then creating my samples from the originals I’d made. As I went on, I learned what types of samples and bits I was most drawn to so I implicitly and explicitly began to make more in that vein.
What might it mean to create my data set of differently-sized monoprints, paintings, and drawings that inform the creation of a larger composition? What might it mean to use this data set to compose a new image? But also, does that image need to be decipherable? This began as an effort to create a quilt to reveal some imagery. I was unsatisfied with the precision and clarity and began to think about pictures of static, noise, and buffering as a container for the composite painting. On MidJourney, you can watch an image come into itself. I became enthralled by these images more so than the final image.
This painting wasn't about a thing. It’s called stuttering toward a complete _________, I because it is not a resolved and decipherable image; it is buffering and processing toward something, but that something is not clear. I was thinking about the early days of digital cable and digital images that experienced pixelation as it fully loaded or other artifacts that obscured a clear image. I think it's definitely a nod toward an abstraction of sorts.
Throughout the space, you will see these bits of paintings and prints that are outside the single painting. They are spilling outside the frame and dispersing through the space as a fight against cohesion. I liked the idea of these little pieces, these little pieces of data, sneaking through the corners and slipping through. And because they are not part of the large composite image, I like to think about them as dirty data that could not be assimilated into the composite image.
III. Video Work
Smooth Operetta | 2022, Signal Channel Video, Runtime: 00:06:05
I remember hearing Sade’s Smooth Operator playing in my childhood home. I did not know what the lyrics meant, but I fondly reminisce about my mother trying to match Sade’s range. Listening to the song now, it’s clear the dude is a whole scammer and moves through the world with ease. I wanted to take the context of this song — a smooth guy who can blend in and operate with limited detection — to think about the concept of dirty data, or that textured and resistant data that makes it difficult to assimilate into a given process. I am still thinking about Ashon Crawley’s meditation on the Bilali script and its impenetrability as an invitation to not only engage with things that do not offer us an easy read but also to create objects that do this work as well. Connected to these machine learning processes, I am interested in what is spit out when a given command cannot be processed. I imagine it to be a space of poetic absurdity. In the first few runs with MidJourney, I had to text and tokenize it so that the machine could better digest the poetic language. I wanted to lean into that to consider the impossibility of a request being “followed” creates noisy and rough images where the “seams” of the composite are more apparent. I wished to think about ways to introduce more “noise” and “seams” into both the aesthetics of the video itself as well as the relationship between sonic perception, visual perception of the closed captions, and one’s memory of the song lyrics. I attempted this in two ways:
I recorded the Sade music video from a variety of perspectives: a straight compressed lo-fi youtube video, rerecording the video playing on my TV with my phone, recording the video playing in the reflection of a photograph in my home/studio, and successive photographs of the music video to create the moving image that functions as the stage for this video work.
The yellow closed-captioned text morphs Sade’s well-known Smooth Operator into a series of absurd lyrics that riff on OuLiPo practices and early GPT-2 outputs. Using an N+7 tool, I began to create new lyrics. I went through a secondary and tertiary process of revising for syllabic coherency and humor.
Video work is very new to me. I have only seriously made video work since 2021, and since then have racked up four. I find it to be a deeply meditative and sculptural process.
The photographs below were produced under a constraint in 2021. I was on a trip home from Williamstown, Massachusetts, and I took many photos through this dirty Amtrak window. Each time I checked the screen to see what I had created, there was noise, refraction, and a general lack of clarity. Specific resolved details peeked through — a branch, a rock. It reminded me of watching an image come into itself in both MidJourney and earlier experiences with downloading images or waiting for a video to buffer. I was fascinated by which details could fight through the noise to make themselves apparent. A battle for not just visibility but legibility. This distinction between visibility and legibility is expanded in a 2017 conversation between Ida Momennejad and Morehshin Allahyari connected to the Future Forms show at Haverford College. I legit spent 20 minutes looking, but I cannot find the physical book and the exact language, but I remember reading the exchange. And I remember saying, yes! Visibility is the perception that something is there, but legibility implies that the ‘something there’ is decipherable. In these photographs, I am interested in the dance between legibility and visibility.
Withheld, I | 2022, 11” x 16.5, Silver Gelatin Type Laser Exposed Print
Withheld, II | 2022, 11” x 16.5, Silver Gelatin Type Laser Exposed Print
Withheld, III | 2022, 11” x 16.5, Silver Gelatin Type Laser Exposed Print
Withheld, IV | 2022, 11” x 16.5, Silver Gelatin Type Laser Exposed Print
V. Silver Gelatin Type Laser Exposed Prints
For the last year and a half, I have created these vulnerable and contingent paintings by painting with photo developer and ink on photosensitive paper without fixer. Fixer is the chemical that holds an image steady. In this process, I wanted to see what would happen. Daily, I think about Beverly Buchanan and Amelia Groom’s writing of Buchanan as someone invested in “material vulnerability.”
To open your work to translation (and just casual reading), you are inviting an element of vulnerability — an openness to how many forces can act upon that text and change it over time. I wanted to create something that bore marks of its previous forms while also announcing that, in the words of Lucille Clifton, “i am not done yet.” With the developer fluid paintings on photosensitive paper, I wanted to share a literally (not conceptually) mutable object. Logistically, I am still figuring this out but I did not want to chemically set the paintings as a stopgap to have them displayed. The paintings were scanned in and reprinted using the silver gelatin type laser exposed printing process. This process becomes the digital fixer. The originals are still sitting in my home/studio, discoloring and taking on a range of new textures. To preserve the aging of the paintings (we are almost in month eight, I believe), this had to happen. These paintings turned prints are similar, conceptually, to the stuttering toward a complete _________, I painting in that they are both these analog translations of things happening in a digital space: a painting depicting the video frame of a buffering video or noisy image, and the paintings turned prints that mirror the final stage of a MidJourney image run. Working with these analog translations of digital processes or aesthetics has made me think much more about archival carryovers. Are we only preserving the final image? Does image-based machine learning necessitate more extensive metadata to understand all the parameters and constraints that go into constructing that image?
Soft Moon | 2022, 11” x 14, Silver Gelatin Type Laser Exposed Printing
Surrender/Sujood - Bend Toward the Light | 2022, 11” x 16.5, Silver Gelatin Type Laser Exposed Printing
Part 2 (new book!) and 3 (video work!) are out later this week!
How to cite this newsletter: Rasheed, K. (Year, Month Day). Newsletter Title. I Will (?) Figure This All Out Later. URL
Thank you for reading,