The Stories We Tell: Blackness As Biotechnology, Collective Imagination, and Study2022
The universe is made of stories, not of atoms.
— Muriel Rukeyser
In Search of A Laboratory
‘A laboratory is simply a place where we tear things to pieces.’ is an offering given to us by George Washington Carver in an interview with Glenn Clark in 19391. Dr. Carver expands our sense of space and tells a story that dissolves the laboratory as a site of enclosure. Based on this re-frame offered by Dr. Carver the laboratory can be:
The living room
The art studio
Under the hush harbor
Inside the woodshed
Inside the protest
Inside the co-op
Inside the forest
In search of a laboratory, I moved to Dawn, VA in June of 2021. Tucked in between the ancestral lands of the Mattaponi and Youghtanund, are the acres where my great grandmother and father farmed to feed 4 generations. On the property were horses, gardens, chickens, hogs, cows, and a smokehouse. There are family stories of Big Ma’s flower garden stopping cars. There are family stories of Big Ma’s laboratory stopping cars. Thirty minutes from Richmond, an hour and a half from DC, and five minutes from Kings Dominion, I am renting a house from my grandaunt, who maintains the house in case any of the grandchildren need shelter. In 2021, I sought that shelter to publish this project. In 2021, I sought that shelter in search of a laboratory.
Cykofa: The Seeda Origin Story
I entered the Ginkgo Creative Residency with the goals of writing a speculative fiction story on the world of Cykofa and to get first hand insight on the inner workings of industrial biotech laboratories — all while learning alongside brilliant biotechnologists, designers, and storytellers. Through a deep research period in Boston filled with countless critical conversations, a writing period in the woods of Dawn, VA where it felt like time slowed, and an energizing experimental period in my printmaking studio where I workshopped how I would publish the story, the first iteration of the Cykofa project emerged.
What is Cykofa? Where is Cykofa? When is Cykofa?Bald cypresses (Taxodium distichum) in a swamp. © Kathryn8—E+/Getty Images
We know this place as the North Carolina Black River, they know it as Cykofa. A parallel universe suspended amongst the past and future — where cornrows are cryptography keys, data farms are data forests, the weaving loom is a computer, a cloth is a document, and chain link fencing from demolished prisons are used as architectural membrane woven with plant life. In Cykofa the trees have learned to speak using the data Cykofians have encoded in the tree’s DNA and tree ring memory.
Cykofa: The Seeda Origin Story is a long-form, speculative fiction, poetry narrative told through the journal entries of a non-binary, biotechnologist, protagonist named Seeda and the found data within a 2,600 year-old ancient, bald cypress tree named Cy. Cy, is our narrator — a tree — but also a portal, allowing us to traverse deep time and connections.
The people of Cykofa have traditionally hosted their data within the DNA of their trees, but what happens when Seeda discovers a rip in the dendrochronological memory, exposing select datasets from our world?
What started out as a short speculative fiction story about an indigenous community with advanced biotechnology, in a parallel universe on North Carolina’s Black River, turned into an excavation project using language to blur the arbitrary lines of biotechnology, spiritual ecologies, and Blackness through collected seed data, remembrance, and experiment.
In accordance with Akan wisdom, if the “san” in “sankofa” means to “return,” the “ko” means to “go,” and the “fa” means to look, seek, and take, then by replacing the “san” with “cy,” short for cypress tree, I am inviting us into a world where we return to our ecosystems and re-imagine time.
Cykofa Is A Methodology
The code is in our node.
We are constantly engineering each other. Biotechnology is what happens inside the relationships you develop within the laboratory of care work. Biotechnology is what happens inside the relationships you develop within mutual aid. Biotechnology is the Black study2 Big Ma engaged within the laboratory of her flower garden. It’s a thing that is simultaneously material and beyond. In the circle of the concert, club, church, cookout or ring shout we are at all times refactoring eachother’s code with our whine, our shine, our dining time. Using only the data of where we came from, who we came from, and what we belong to, we are bioengineering a whole new reality as a call back to the world we carry in our blood stream, in our head, in our hearts, braided into our hair. We are bioengineering a whole new story as a call back to the world we carry in our blood stream, in our head, in our hearts, braided into our hair. Following our Sankofa sensibility we might find ourselves underneath a tree. Remembering where it all used to be3.
Cykofa is a methodology.
Cykofa is a long form poem.
Cykofa is a scientific paper.
Cykofa is an academic essay.
Cykofa is a song.
Cykofa is a prayer with a question mark.
Cykofa is a chorus.
Cykofa is speculative fiction.
Cykofa is a short story.
Cykofa is a laboratory.
Cykofa is a place.
Remembering where it all used to be.
Cykofa Narration Process
The first step is always research.
Thanks to the Ginkgo Creative Residency, I spent the month of October in Boston and was able to have the most insightful conversations and experiences around the infinite forms of interspecies communication, where the laboratory is and/or where it could be, the entanglement of science and capitalism, what science stories we might tell if colonization never happen, etc. Additionally, I was able to attend Ginkgo’s Ferment conference at the closing of my trip to learn more about the current stories we’re telling about industrial biotechnology. Countless conversations and zoom calls in Boston, wet lab tours, days of reading, days of data compiling and more all informed the database that was used to generate the language of Cy’s voice within the story.
The Cykofa Narration Database ultimately underwent four drafts.
- In the first draft I combined YouTube transcripts, found PDFs, website text, poems, journalism articles, etc. from biotechnologists, biotechnology thought leaders, Afrofuturists, poets, visual artists, musicians, community organizers from all backgrounds. This was too wide of a dataset and the generated voice of Cy seemed scattered.
- In the second draft I specifically focused on combining the words of biotechnologists and abolitionists because of a theme I started to notice arising from my research and conversations. It seemed some of the most necessary components for biotechnology to be deployed ethically was community engagement, collaboration, and accountability. Three key factors, from my observation and experience, abolitionists are the most qualified in facilitating through their experience with working within mutual aid networks, transformative/restorative justice healing circles, community teach-ins, direct action interventions and more. It turns out, when combined, the voices in these datasets were so different that it started to sound like, Cy — what would be our narrating tree — was arguing with itself.
- So I went back to the drawing board and took the first draft where I combined YouTube transcripts, found PDFs, website text, poems, journalism articles, etc. and removed all the data entries expect those by Black and Indiegonous biotechnologists, bioengineers, biodesigners, and biotechnology thought leaders. That still didn’t feel right. Then I realized it was because I was only focused on biotechnology as something that happens inside the lab or for the purposes of industry and capital accumulation.
- By the fourth draft of the database, I began to imagine biotechnology through the lens of Blackness and Black study. In this dataset I combined Black biotechnologists, bioengineers, biodesigners, and biotechnology thought leaders with Black futurists, poets, witches, visual artists, musicians, healers, craftspeople, and community organizers. The voice of Cy began to sing a new story.
Blackness as Biotechnology
If our colonial story of biotechnology is “the exploitation of biological processes for industrial purposes” what stories might emerge if we expand our definition past industry and root it in a story of relation and Black feminist ecologies?
Research shows that trauma is carried in the body through epigenetics. I imagine joy, wisdom, choregraphies of care work, and creative expression are stored somewhere in the body as well.
Christina Sharpe’s groundbreaking research and book titled, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being4 was a totem during this research process. She talks about “The Wake” as the aftermath of the Middle Passage invoking a definition of “the wake” as “a trail of disturbed water or air left by the passage of a ship or aircraft.” The wake as an aftermath or consequence, but also the wake as it relates to the sociality of death, suffering, and ceremony. She talks about the work inside the aftermath of the Middle Passage as “wake work”. I imagine the modes of being invoked as an after-effect of the Middle Passage as “wake engineering” akin to bioengineering. I titled the fourth draft of the database, “Wake Engineering” to invoke the biotechnology that happens inside the labor and love of inventing ways of living with and within the unlivable — an ontological project that takes the form of Blackness. Blackness as a general sociality which relies on relation and generativity as a central aesthetic is an aesthetic shared by biotechnology.
During an interview with Sarah Rees5, referring to the ontology of Black folks Arthur Jafa was quoted invoking Nam June Paik saying,
““The culture that's going to survive in the future, you can carry around in your head.” The culture you can carry in your head. We're super strong culturally in those spaces where our culture was carried on our nervous systems: music, oratorical stuff, dance. Those are all things that you carry in your body. So if you're enslaved in Africa, put on a ship, brought to the Americas, you can carry those things with you.
But all this sort of material expressivity – painting, sculpture, architecture – erodes really fast because you can't carry a building when you're on a slave ship. And even if you’re emancipated from the slave ship and introduced into this new alien environment, whether you're on a chain gang, plantation, prison, doesn't really matter. You can continue to sing. You can continue to talk. You can continue to dance.”
Biotechnology is Parliament Funkadelic leaving liner notes inside your hips during the Mothership Connection Concert on Halloween Night in Houston, TX in 1976.
Biotechnology is Emma Dupree, a herbalist elder, engaging in interspecies communication in North Carolina for over 90 years.
Biotechnology is Aretha Franklin turning the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church into a laboratory — rearranging our cells to the tune of Amazing Grace, in 1972.
Biotechnology is ancestors braiding seeds into the hair of enslaved peoples so they may have familiar food wherever they land.
Biotechnology is Grandmaster Flash invoking rolling circle amplification at his turntables as he iterated on the science of hip-hop.
Biotechnology is what happened inside Fannie Lou Hamer’s university of Black study known as the Freedom Farm Cooperative in 1969.
Biotechnology is the Black Panther Party’s 10-point program that fed the stomachs and imaginations of entire communities across space and time.
Biotechnology is the United Order of Tents one of the oldest Black secret organizations founded by churchwomen and a Black feminist care ethic in Norfolk, Virginia in 1867.
Biotechnology is them organizing mutual aid networks that gave people loans when banks wouldn’t and paid for people’s healthcare and funeral costs when they couldn’t.
Biotechnology is the quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama leaving codes in quilts to remind us everything we need is already within us.
The majority of Black and Indigenous folks may never sit at a bench in an industrial biotechnology lab and that’s okay because they never needed to. We do a kind of science that keeps us bound up with each other, our ecosystems, and the truth of our dreams6.
This is the organizing framework from which the database that would inform Cy’s voice, our ancient bald cypress tree narrator, was built.
Cykofa Database is partly inspired by a collection of found data assembled based on a series of research themes I developed during the Wherewithal Research Fellowship from 2020—2021 generously funded through the Washington Project for the Arts and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
These 5 themes are titled:
- Polycultural Design: Fractal Framing and Visualizing the Archive
- The Tree Ring Shout: Data Encoded Plant DNA and the Black Water
- Seed Data: The Archive, Non-linear Narrative, and Collective Memory
- Cloth Cryptography: Weaving Documents and The Coding Language of the Grid
- Black Feminist Labor and Technology: Computation, Automation, and Fugitive Practice (Embodying Obfuscation and Load Balancing)
The second part of the process of Cykofa Narration is the writing which is also layered, because again, I can’t do it alone. Because again, I don’t want to do it alone. Because again, I was never supposed to do it alone.
Writing in collaboration with the computer and my references that make up the seed data whom, I call the choir — after Saidiya Hartman’s invoking of the choir in Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Social Upheaval7 — is a hands-on approach, engaging with the language as material.
- First: I gather found data from the internet and build the database with the gathered seed data.
- Second: I group specific data entries from the database based on who I think would yield an interesting narrative and my computer program weaves this data together into one narrative. From this computer generated conversation, a surprising theme generally arises from the transdisciplinary, non-linear, poly-vocal, stewed body of language. I copy the generated Cykofa Narration directly from my computer’s terminal.
- Third: I print out a hard copy of the narration from the terminal and then cut and recombine the narration, by hand, depending on the type of tone and conversation I’m trying to invoke and the themes that are already present.
- Lastly: From those themes, I name the title of the chapter, write Seeda’s journal entries alongside the narrative theme generated from the data, and weave the de/reconstructed Cykofa Narration and Seeda’s journal entries together, by hand, in ways that feel compelling and play with pace, rhyme, and resonance.
Through exploring using data from multiple disciplines, writers, and voices, and weaving those sources together to create one non-linear narrative the story begins to arise from collective hums building into a choral hymn instead of individual sentences accumulating into one linear plot. Through deploying collective imagination as an aesthetic, I hope to experiment with data composting to contribute to the Black study aesthetic of re-appropriation, quilting, sampling, collage and co-authored narrative building. By reappropriating “digital waste” I imagine a world where waste doesn’t exist. Cy has been patiently rooted in the Black water inviting us to listen for over 2,600 years.
Do you know how the Black River got its color? The branches and the leaves stain the river, giving it its color and name. Imagining there is data stored within the DNA of the leaves and branches, the Black River becomes a large compost tea of mystery, brewing song, scream, prayer, play, language, and dance into one decomposed story where there is no beginning or end. Inspired by the Black River as an ecological gumbo, I reappropriate the data from our world as found/scrap material to write alongside and tell a story of a new world. The call was the Black River, the response is Cykofa.
The creative residency at Ginkgo Bioworks further informed the collective aesthetic of this project. The work of Grow Your Own Cloud8, previous Ginkgo Bioworks residents, have deepened my imagination around possible convergences of biology and technology that yield emergent and reciprocal modes of existing within abundant ecosystems. Staying with the ethos of relation, during the residency, my understanding of the emergent possibilities within biotechnology deepened. Once inside the walls I realized they were porous, permeable, soft and melting or eroding in some places. Inspired by the ephermatility and shifting nature of the walls encircling our capitalist formations and stories of biotechnology I set out to try to write a different story so we all might dream together. While trying to abandon the aesthetic of single authorship through writing alongside the choir of my references and the conversations inside the Ginkgo residency I deploy poetry to aid in the decay of the walls, letting the Black River take us downstream where we can join each other in a spectacular shock of recognition9.
Lastly, I completed the printing, cutting, and binding at Studio Two Three in Richmond, Virginia. The book features a risograph printed cover and vellum sheets as an experiment in translucency and opacity. Printing on vellum allowed me to create three narratives in one book: Seeda's Journal Entries, Cy's Narration, and both read together. Printing on translucent paper also creates material echoes to the story itself, reinforcing the parallel universe theme and the layering process of the Cykofa Narration methodology and my risograph printmaking practice.
Sometimes zines are textbooks, but at all times zines are meeting places. I have long thought of my publishing practice as one related to a sort of social architecture, where words on the page invoke a space where we can all congregate and find each other. My art practice got its start in 2014 when I published a collectively produced zine showcasing the art, style, and culture within DC’s metro area. Fast forward 8 years and I still find storytelling and publishing to be ripe sites for study and worlding. Remembering a new world is always possible wherever we’re standing, I hope the story of Cykofa inspires us to create our own pluriverses beside the river, in the living room, on the street, under the tree, wherever our laboratory happens to be.
Cykofa: The Seeda Origin Story Book
Cykofa: The Seeda Origin Story Chapters
Chapter 1 — Southern Trees Bear Strange Data
In this chapter, I meditate on the body as a node in a larger system. Chapter 1 is an ode to the body as a blurry boundary, queerness, interconnectedness, and relation.
Chapter 2 — The Nature of the Node
Chapter 2 introduces Seeda as a character, their job, their position as a worker, what they wear, what their lab work looks like, what lab work could look like, etc.
Chapter 3 — Dance Often Accompanies This Ritualistic Occasion
In chapter 3 there is a wider introduction to the world of Cykofa, the technology of Cykofa and the many work groups or “guilds” that exist within the community. We’re also introduced to care as a central part of their culture.
Chapter 4 — Secret or Sound Off?: Haunting As Resistance
In chapter 4 I am invoking Audre Lorde’s seminal essay “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”. Does Seeda report this finding, the finding of our data/our world, to the elders and the board of discovery? Should they try to make contact with us in this world? In this chapter I invoke the Black feminist decision/dilenma of silence vs. screaming and the joy and pain in between.
Chapter 5 — The Black Water Speaks: All Water Has Perfect Memory
Chapter 5 is where Seeda gets swallowed by the Black River and receives an assignment.
Cykofa x Meaning
I want to conclude by returning to the original question of this year’s creative residency: How have language, metaphor, and fiction shaped synthetic biology, and can we find new scripts to generate other meanings?
Synthetic biology is just synthesis. There is no such thing as a new thing. Every output is a composite of what came before. Every invention is a loop.
Through composting our “data waste” or digital detritus, Cykofa becomes a window to a more beautiful, sustainable, and livable world, using the current material of the world we’re already swimming in. Through exploring using data from multiple disciplines, afrofuturists to biotechnologists, weavers to poets, braiders to mathematicians, and quilting those sources together to create one non-linear narrative the story begins to arise from collective hums building into a choral hymn of care and curiosity — these disciplines share more in common than we’re taught, inviting us to cultivate meaning from the mixture.
Blackness As Biotechnology
Blackness is nothing if not a composite, where collective imagination is the embodiment of a loop. On January 2019, in her transformative book Dear Science10, Katherine McKittrick writes,
“To be Black is to live through scientific racism and, at the same time, re-invent the terms and stakes of knowledge. The reinvention becomes an invention-appreciation of our relational lives...To be Black is to recognize and enervate the fictive perimeters of you, Science, and notice that the enclosures of biological determinism and the potentials of opacity, together, provide the conditions to concoct a different story altogether.”
It is from this place where I hope to enervate the fictive perimeters of science and generate meaning through remembering the emergent, world bending science of survival as experiments in "human being" that my ancestors invoked so I may present this story to you.
Epistemology is all bound up with the colonial invention of "human being" (as separate from “nature”).
I hope Cykofa generates meaning through acting as one potential meeting place for many Black study experiments to come. Through learning alongside: The folks within the Ginkgo and Faber Futures team and their extensive network, the choir of Black references that became emergent datasets of poesis, and the forests and the rivers I explored while generating this project, I hope to compost all that I’ve learned and repurpose it into a kind of curriculum. When accepting her Nobel Prize in Literature in 1993, the year I was born, Toni Morrison offered, “We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.” I am interested in doing language and doing language differently so we may imagine new forms of being and living together. By doing language differently we create new maps for people we’ll never meet — making new meaning for future generations.
Before biodesign there were shamans collaborating with microbes11.
Before biodesign there were herbalists healing entire communities12.
Before biodesign there were farmers working with soil and soul as an interface to care for and tend to healing intergenerational trauma from the Atlantic slave trade13.
Instead of “capitalizing on the demand for novelty”, what we might demand is not liberatory or ethical “biodesign” but just plain old liberation and abolition from the capitalist infrastructure that only understands the language of domination and exploitation. Abolition of all the fictive disciplinary boundaries and colonial stories that inform our definitions and modes of working today. It’s never too late to go back and get that which we have forgotten14. Cykofa is an invitation to remember where it all used to be15.
If you're interested in following the Cykofa story head over to Seeda School. Named after the Cykofian future ancestor Seeda, Seeda School, is a learning platform for abolitionist skill building and imagination. Through this platform you'll find Seeda Press as a publishing program for anti-disciplinary Black feminists, online courses taught by a Black feminists, site specific study sessions where we practice interspecies communication through engaging our sensorium, ceramic collections of Cykofa artifacts, and more.
I want to give a huge thank you and shout out to Allie and Srijani of the NGS Computational Bio Team — it was actually Srijani who planted the brilliant idea that DNA sequencing could somehow happen within Seeda’s body, Jenny Molloy and Aishwarya Venkatramani of Open Bioeconomy Lab who allowed me to imagine the economy and culture biotechnology deserves, Corinne Takara — artist & STEAM Educator — who is the connector of all connectors, your words and support reverberate throughout my thinking in this project and beyond, Erika Szymanski whom I had a brilliant conversation with about microbes, interspecies communication, and invoking pluiverses, Elaine Shapland and the whole Build team and Bradley Barber and the whole Biofab team for allowing me to tour your labs and ask dozens of speculative science questions, Maria Astolfi head of iGEM Design League whom I had an amazing conversation with about scientific curiosity sustaining beyond childhood and culturally integrated pedagogy, Leon Elcock who I had such an energizing conversation with about the intersection of abolition and biotechnology and how we might organize around worker power in biotech, Monika Seyfried and Cyrus Clarke at Grow Your Own Cloud whose projects and research around encoding data into the DNA of plants help seed my imagination and the story of Cykofa, Andrea Ling who helped inform my thinking around the function of architectural ephemerality and how it can invoke systems rooted in a culture of communal care, Yasaman Sheri with whom I had an expansive conversation with about the role of speculation within design, Atsede and Amber of NGS who allowed me to tour their labs and walked me through all of their DNA sequencing technologies which informed my imagination on what DNA sequencing labs and capabilities could look like inside a forest, Anna Greenswag, Senior Lab Manager, who allowed me to nerd out with them on all things science fiction, what a lab situated in a forest might look like and function as, and thank you to the scientist who we stopped in the hallway to talk about waste and together imagined circular functions and the composting outputs of waste in science labs.
And I of course want to thank Grace Chuang, Joshua Dunn, Christina Agapakis, Eli Block, Natsai Chieza, and Ioana Man for our many conversations, connecting me with the aforementioned folks, and sharing links and resources that helped me further connect my ideas informing the themes that emerged in the data.
Last but never least I must give thanks to my ancestors, loved ones, and the 100+ database entries of Black scholars, artists, poets, scientists, and abolitionists whose work I wrote this story alongside.
What you can’t see are countless notes, mind bending conversations, book cover sketches, scraps of paper on the floor from my writing and collaging process, lunches beside rivers and under trees, but I hope I was able to communicate how ever-changing this project is and how much this project has changed me. Like a river, I look forward to continuing.
- George Washington Carver on ego and self. Blank on Blank. (n.d.). Retrieved January 21, 2022, from https://blankonblank.org/interviews/george-washington-carver-on-ego-and-self-science-chemistry-peanuts-healing/
- Harney, S., & Moten, F. (2013). The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study. Autonomedia.
- Zinsser, W., & Morrison, T. (1999). The Site of Memory. In Inventing the truth: The art and craft of memoir (pp. 98–99). essay, Houghton Mifflin.
- Sharpe, C. E. (2016). In The Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press.
- Rees, S. (2019, May 11). For Arthur Jafa, Black Art is the heart of America. Sydney Opera House. Retrieved from https://www.sydneyoperahouse.com/digital/articles/art/arthur-jafa-interview-black-art-heart-of-america.html
- Hurston, Z. N. (2013). Chapter 1. In Their Eyes Were Watching God (p. 32). HarperCollins Publishers.
- Hartman, S. (2019). Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals. United States: W. W. Norton.
- Grow your own cloud. Grow Your Own Cloud. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://growyourown.cloud/
- Toni Morrison interview at Princeton (1992). YouTube. (2019, August 9). Retrieved from https://youtu.be/vTyt-UJXP8g?t=437
- McKittrick, K. (2020). Dear Science and Other Stories (p. 186). United States: Duke University Press.
- Giraldo Herrera, C. E. (2018). Microbes and Other Shamanic Beings. Germany: Springer International Publishing.
- Rosenberg, N. (2011, June 16). Take Mugwort and Call Us in a Week. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/19/nyregion/sacred-vibes-apothecary-in-brooklyn-takes-herbal-approach.html
- Heyman, S., & Yates, P. by C. S. (2020, July 3). Soul Fire Farm’s Leah Penniman Explains Why Food Sovereignty Is Central in the Fight for Racial Justice. Vogue. Retrieved from https://www.vogue.com/article/soul-fire-farm-leah-penniman-why-food-sovereignty-is-central-in-the-fight-for-racial-justice
- The Power of Sankofa: Know History. Carter G. Woodson Center. (2017, November 20). Retrieved from https://www.berea.edu/cgwc/the-power-of-sankofa/
- Zinsser, W., & Morrison, T. (1999). The Site of Memory. In Inventing the truth: The art and craft of memoir (pp. 98–99). essay, Houghton Mifflin.
This essay was originally published on the Ginkgo Bioworks Blog