How ‘Neurospeculative AfroFeminism’ Uses Virtual Reality to Explore Otherworldly Transformation at a Black Hair Salon

By Sameer Rao Mar 17, 2017

Imagine this: You’re a Black woman at Brook’s Salon for the first time. You’re waiting for a stylist to do your hair. Only, she’s not a stylist so much as a chemist, with a series of containers holding unknown chemicals close at hand. She says she has just the thing for you and takes you to a back room—where you are suddenly traveling in an otherworldly space, floating above black water that surrounds an island with massive speakers and a DJ playing downtempo R&B. Long black extensions hover above you like shining dreadlocks in a blood-red sky. As a matter of fact, it looks something like the image above. 

After all this, you’re outfitted with a set of “Octavia Electrodes,” or extensions that increase the sensitivity of your brain’s synapses. Then you reenter the salon refreshed and looking better than ever.

If you can envision at least part of this, then you can scratch the surface of “Neurospeculative AfroFeminism,” (NSAF) a virtual reality (VR) experience that demoed all week at South by Southwest (SxSW). Participants enter a dark room and don headphones and an apparatus that places a cell phone screen right in front of their eyes, immersing the viewer in the scenario above. Afterwards, those willing to debrief go to an adjoining room for a live study about what they experienced. NSAF showcased at South by Southwest after premiering at Sundance Film Festival’s “New Frontier Art” showcase in January. It comes to New York City’s Tribeca Film Festival next month. 


NSAF designers Ashley Baccus-Clark, Carmen Aguilar y Wedge, Ece Tankal and Nitzan Bartov are members of Hyphen-Labs, a New York City-based interdisciplinary studio that creates media at the intersection of art and technology. Like the rest of the collective’s members, the four designers are women of color representing a variety of ethnicities and professional backgrounds.

Baccus-Clark, a molecular biologist by training, described NSAF as “a transmedia project looking at the roles and contributions of women of color in the science, art and technology realm, specifically focusing on Black women,” in an interview with Colorlines on Wednesday (March 15).

Aguilar y Wedge, a structural engineer and Hyphen-Labs’ co-founder, added in the same interview that the quartet wished to create something that focused on women of color in a narrative technology mostly associated with White men. “We hadn’t seen any virtual reality or 3-D experiences that put Black women at the centers of the narrative,” she explained. “This is kind of a story to our younger selves as technologists, engineers and scientists. We left fields because we didn’t see ourselves projected in these spaces, so we wanted to create an experience that if had were able to see it, maybe it would’ve encouraged us to continue in those fields.” 


With these ideas in mind, they developed the experience around the idea of a Black beauty salon as a transformative space. “Inside the salon, you have a space where you can interact with products, and there’s always this back room where maybe there are investigations going on or people take a break,” says Aguilar y Wedge. “We envisioned that as where science goes on.”

“If you’re in this space getting your hair done, and someone’s in the back coming up with a formula that’s specific for your biochemistry, that’s not so far off from the history of people making tinctures and using that in beauty regimens,” says Baccus-Clark. “So often, if you’re not familiar with this space or economics of beauty, that’s not something you’d ever think of.” 


The creators also brought some of their speculative “products” into a physical display that accompanied the VR experience. They include the aforementioned “Octavia Electrodes,” named after sci-fi author Octavia Butler (shown in the photo above); a head and face wrap designed to confuse facial recognition technology used in surveillance; and a doorknocker earring that doubles as a camera to capture police interactions with civilians.

As for the exhibit’s post-Tribeca life, the designers are working with Intel and Columbia University to conduct cognitive impact research on users’ feelings and biases after exiting NSAF. They also plan to turn it into a broader experience that more people can access beyond privileged spaces like SxSW. “We want to create a platform where we can talk about this story through many different mediums,” says Aguilar y Wedge. “We’re trying to create a new American or global mythology that has women’s perspectives from unique communities at the center. Our world is shifting, and the content needs to follow that trajectory.”

Culture Reporter Sameer Rao is in Austin this week covering race- and people of color-focused panels and events at South by Southwest.