Science and art are totally polar things – this is what we are used to think. See how neuroscientist Ashley Baccus-Clark proves this wrong by working at the intersection of these two, at first glance, different concepts.

NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism is an ambitious virtual reality project, introduced by Ashley Baccus-Clark and Hyphen Labs team, a global community of women of color, who are driven to create meaningful and engaging ways to explore emotional, human-centered and speculative design. Working at the intersection of art, technology, science, and futurism, the team tries to rebuild the perception of women of color in societies and reimagine their future, all inside the neuro-cosmetology lab.

One day, Ashley Baccus-Clark, originally a molecular biologist, together with her friend Carmen Aguilar y Wedge went to Storm King, a sculpture garden in New York. Both overwhelmed with the recent events of two black men being killed by the police, the two friends decided to set up for a self-care day. When applying her sunscreen, Baccus-Clark was unhappily surprised to notice that it almost made her face couple of shades lighter.

This seemingly tiny example of color people being mistreated by such ordinary things as sunscreen tone made Baccus-Clark think of all other inequality and social injustice issues in different lanscapes, and the decision came right away: it is time something was actually done about the situation. “Women of color have to modify products to fit who they are as people,” – Baccus-Clark explained to The Huffington Post. “Why should I have to spend my time and energy worrying about something like sunscreen? There is so much technology designed by people of color that isn’t made without them [people of color] in mind.”

With these thoughts in mind, Baccus Clark joined the Hyphen Labs, and together with architect and designer Ece Tankal, artist Nitzan Bartov and co-founder Carmen Aguilar y Wedge, stepped into the universe of emerging technology, futuristic neuroscientific product design and virtual reality experience. NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism is comprised of two components – speculative products designed specifically for women of color, and a VR narrative that takes place in a neuro-cosmetology lab somewhere in the future.

From left to the right: Ece Tankal, Carmen Aguilar y Wedge, Ashley Baccus-Clark and Nitzan Bartov.

The number one object was, predictably, the sunscreen suitable and perfectly safe for dark skin. This product addresses more day-to-day problems of women of color, allowing them to no longer worry about choosing the unfit sunscreen tone that would damage their skin. The second product is designed with the help of AB Screenware – a visor with a reflective surface, which, when worn, allows the wearer to not be seen, and reflects the faces of passerby back at themselves.

Next product, created by Hyphen Labs and Michele Cortese, is a pair of chubby earrings that have a function of audio- and video recording, to inconspicuously record any misconducts or aggressions towards people of color on a daily basis. Another idea to prevent biased attitude and so commonly identified surveillance of people of color was implemented via a headscarf with special patterns that trick facial recognition systems – this one was brought together with HyperFace Camouflage’s artist, Adam Harvey.

“We’re supposed to create art projects and other work that questions you or makes you feel uncomfortable. That’s not necessarily the goal of our experiences, but that’s the nature of talking about issues like this,” – says Baccus-Clark. The last product presented by Hyphen Labs is called “The Octavia”, and lies at the heart of VR experience. The Octavia is a non-intrusive procedure, which includes using electrical currents for stimulation of particular brain regions. Currently, this technique is used to cure depression and anxiety, however Hyphen Labs take the electrodes and combine them with natural hair extensions that are braided into natural hair.

The Hyphen Labs VR experience has premiered in January this year, at Sundance’s New Frontier Art Festival, overlapping with the American presidential inauguration. The viewer puts on the Oculus Rift helmet, and the next second he is immersed into a dazzling future reality, which takes place in a neuro-cosmetology lab owned by a woman, Brooks. The viewer sees himself in a mirror as a young black woman, while Brooks prepares him to hair extensions and brain-stimulating Octavia electrodes. As soon as everything is set, the viewer is carried into a futuristic dream space that is only possible in VR universe.

“We want to tell stories of social impact in VR and through new product design and research,” -explaines Baccus-Clark. “Through this immersive experience, users can experience new media in different ways and connect with those issues differently.”

Hyphen Labs project is about making other people feel in other person’s skin, in a skin of people of color, in order to blur the boundaries between “white” and “colored” and get on the path of eliminating racial inequality and misconducts. NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism is about ensuring security, protection and visibility of women of color bodies by using cutting-edge technologies combined with fantasy and art. The project tries to tell a story not necessarily to people who are somehow inclined to new media and technology, but also to those with little experience to give them an entry point.

NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism is currently at beta stage, but the creators are looking for the recent responses to see if people would want more of what they have experienced. Luckily, the biggest response proved the success of the project, and Hyphen Labs realize how important it is for people to be told that all they need comes from within, that they already have everything inside to create their own reality. Finalizing their efforts to create “if you were a person of color” story, Hyphen Labs preside over their ongoing research about VR’s affection on viewers and possibility for it to reduce bias by providing an immersive experience into black women’s portrayals.

“Our main goal is not only to bring this around to festivals or to galleries or museums but also to bring it into the communities that we want to most be impacted by this work, or bring them into the spaces where we are.”

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