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This Neuroscientist Uses Art to Fight Hate

Hyphen-Labs' Ashley Baccus-Clark co-created a VR project that puts users into the body of a black woman.

If intersectional feminism has managed to escape your grasp, then look no further than Hyphen-Labs to better understand the concept. This international collective of women of color is using art and emerging technology to combat inequality. Their latest project, NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, is a virtual reality installation that puts users in the body of a black woman at a hair salon.

Brooklyn-based neuroscientist and creative director Ashley Baccus-Clark led the research for the project. Giving someone control of an avatar that is a different race, she explained to me, can help decrease prejudice. “A lot of what I do at Hyphen-Labs is think speculatively about how to fit research into the large-scale installations that we do,” Baccus-Clark said. With a background in molecular biology and marketing, she uses real-world data to create interactive experiences that will alert others of their own privilege.

“We want people to understand it can’t just be me talking about this [inequality]. It can’t just be you. We need to be allies with each other,” Baccus-Clark said.

In July 2016, two black men, Philando Castile and Alton Sterling, were shot and killed by the police within days of each other. Baccus-Clark came home from her job as an experiential marketer at Warby Parker and cried in the living room with then-roommate and Hyphen-Labs co-founder Carmen Aguilar y Wedge, who is Latinx. “It’s important to have friends, even if they’re not black, who are still impacted by these high-profile killings and extra-judicial killings,” Baccus-Clark said. Along with co-founder Ece Tankal, from Turkey, these three women are helping to center all women of color from a global perspective. “Virtual reality has been touted as this empathy machine,” she said. “I’d prefer my work to be contextualized in the frame of mindfulness: of being mindful of a person as an experience and not trying to commodify it.”

I caught up with Baccus-Clark to learn more about NeuroSpeculative AfroFeminism, which debuted at Sundance last year and will be exhibited at Rutgers. She told me about the ways in which virtual reality, biohacking, and other emerging tech can help us unlearn biases.

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