A green space with a vertical screen featuring an image of an African American woman, mounted on vertical metal bars
Gallery view of Martine Syms: Neural Swamp / The Future Fields Commission, 2022, showing one of the several screens, this one featuring the fictional character of Athena (Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo by Joseph Hu)

Being a Black Girl in a Digital World

Dr. Synatra Smith

Martine Syms’s installation Neural Swamp is an intriguing display of variations within millennial Black womanhood

Martine Syms: Neural Swamp is an exploration of what it means to be Black and woman-identifying in an increasingly digitized world. Syms explains, “I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a living, breathing, fleshy, messy thing in a world full of screens, and I’m interested in how technology changes the way we relate to one another.” Enhanced access to the tools themselves and the content created and shared through those tools can be a double-edged sword. While there are certainly helpful aspects to this increased access to technology (e.g., launching the #BlackLivesMatter social justice campaign through the use of a Twitter hashtag and sharing civilian recorded videos of police brutality), it can also be quite harmful—there is increased surveillance and criminalization of Black bodies, and violent, hypersexualized images of Black people are circulated to perpetuate that criminalization.

Additionally, social media companies see huge profits thanks to the content creation of young Black professionals, who may only see a fraction of those profits. And what profits they do see are primarily through sponsorships rather than direct compensation from those companies, all while driving the required traffic to those platforms where user retention translates into dollars for shareholders. These platforms and other tools may not have been designed with Black users in mind, but we have been able to develop networks and shape the rules for engagement in ways that lead to software updates in support of the natural development of the “Black technocultural” landscape. This is demonstrated in Neural Swamp as the fictional characters will develop, through machine technology, throughout the life of the installation.

The installation centers the voices of three unique fictional Black women through the use of artificial intelligence. The main character, Athena, is a professional golfer, who brings to mind the legendary African American professional golfer and tennis player Althea Gibson. Golf is one sport in which we don’t typically see Black women. Gibson is one of the unsung heroes I wish more people knew about: the graduate of a historically Black college, she was a member of a Black sorority, and mentored by Robert Walter Johnson, the same person who mentored African American tennis player Arthur Ashe (whose wife’s works are in the museum’s collection). Syms’s use of the name “Athena” in Neural Swamp likens her status to that of a goddess or superhero, which really excites my “blerd” (or Black nerd) spirit.

Separate from Neural Swamp, another body of work by Syms creates a musical soundscape for the installation and features Kita, a virtual reality DJ based on the BET music video show Cita’s World (1999–2003). Although Kita is not a character in Neural Swamp, I was especially excited about her role and had flashbacks to watching Cita’s World in middle and high school and being in awe of the technology that seemed so cutting edge at the time. I was able to immediately connect with the narrative being explored in the installation. Syms and I are one year apart in age, and while we may be from opposite coasts, we share a similar contextual experience through our consumption of Black popular culture.

This cultural context was so powerful that at the exhibition’s opening event there was a moment where one of the security guards, a visitor, and I were having our own not-so-private party singing along to the music video that was played in full on one of the monitors with Kita: “Peaches and Cream” by 112. I even remembered some of the choreography from the video. We briefly reminisced on where we were when that song was popular, and I was so pleased by this quick slice of #BlackGirlMagic.

Upon leaving this installation, which is in a completely green space, I felt so excited about the use of digital tools in art-making and exhibition design. I was transported to a moment in time that exists outside of our physical realm in a liminal virtual space—one that reflects our reality back to us and challenges us to embrace the versatility of Black femininity. It’s athletic, introspective, animated, spiritual, and so much more.

For a peek at the installation, check out the TikTok I posted after the opening.

Dr. Synatra Smith is an Afrofuturist cultural preservationist focused on demonstrating the creation, perpetuation, and transformation of Black cultural landscapes. Her work pays special attention to the ways in which virtual and physical space are used as environments to transform access to archives and special collections, both conceptually and in practice, and how material culture contributes to this phenomenon. She is interested in developing immersive digital humanities projects that showcase current local Black art and scholarship in Philadelphia through an Afrofuturist lens that reimagines time and space in order to speculate about the future. She is the museum’s CLIR/DLF Postdoctoral Fellow in Data Curation for African American Studies.