Image by Milo Smolin

Nancy Baker Cahill: Substrate

Substrate, a LACMA Art + Technology Grant project by artist Nancy Baker Cahill, examines the equitable distributive properties of mycelial networks, and how they relate to emerging data-sharing technologies. Substrate connects civic institutions, cultural resources, and data storage systems as a collaborative test case for civic hubs citywide, including the Los Angeles Public Library, LACMA, and Long Beach City College working in tandem, imagining new ways of eliminating barriers to access, of structuring permission, and of producing and sharing knowledge. Using blockchain, Substrate connects these public resources as metaphoric "Mother Trees" with the potential to nourish communities through distributed networks of multi-stakeholder cultural initiatives.

Part one of Substrate will appear on the Central Library Video Wall and launch on June 27 with a panel discussion featuring Karla Aguiñiga, curator of the Long Beach City College gallery, in conversation with student participants Casper Torres, Miguel Zavala-Lopez, Shereen Moustafa, and Mark Sosa about their exhibition Universum, created in response to Substrate, along with remarks from artist Nancy Baker Cahill and LACMA Art + Tech Lab director Joel Ferree.

Introduction—Nancy Baker Cahill:  

I am so fortunate to have received a LACMA Art + Tech grant in 2022 to launch Substrate, a multi-valent experimental collaborative systems project, the first part of which is now complete. The second part, an AR visualization, will follow in future months. It’s been an utter privilege to work with students from Long Beach City College with direction from the amazing curator and educator Karla Aguiñiga on part one. I’ll briefly outline some of the goals that animate Substrate, borrowing liberally from a whitepaper I penned about the project at the beginning:

“In the face of compounding, interconnected global crises, Substrate, an experimental art project in futuristic civics, looks for solutions in nature, focusing on biomimicry. Mycelial networks provide a robust model as networks that supply decentralized, self-sustaining, reciprocal, efficient systems of community care and resource-sharing to the interdependent carbon-based life they support. Our shared social, economic, and environmental futures may depend on learning from this blueprint for 'moral economies,' privileging the health and sustenance of the entire system over the needs of discrete individuals. Emerging technologies that contain the structural capacity for similar systems, including distributed ledgers of blockchains, decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs), and the novel virtuality and interoperability of a 'Web3' internet may provide new models for redistributing and protecting cultural knowledge and culturally-specific epistemologies, an early (but by no means solitary) step toward generating more equitable civic futures.

Interdisciplinary collaboration has been as key to this project as facilitating rich biodiversity is to mycelial networks. Substrate summons the 'mother tree' civic hubs and overlapping networks of an art museum (LACMA), a central library (LACPL), and Long Beach City College. This institutional interlocking provides the ground to forge a new model of cultural engagement, access, and provenance using Filecoin, the world’s largest decentralized storage network. Southern California community college curatorial students, led by Curator Karla Aguiñiga, have rigorously researched the 'nutrients' (or metadata, histories, properties) of cultural artifacts they value from LACMA’s collection to share, protect, honor and distribute through a flagship digital (and possibly hybrid) exhibition in L.A.’s Central Public Library, itself a nourishing hub for larger communities. The student group, including Casper Torres, Shereen Moustafa, Mark Sosa, and Miguel Zavala, will share their perspectives as part of a live panel discussion at LACPL in summer 2024, and StandardVision will host the digital components in the LACPL atrium.

This initial community-determined exhibition, minted, encrypted and time-stamped on the blockchain, will be shareable, traceable, and adaptable through the vast network of libraries in California and throughout the United States. This model is designed to be adapted and further developed for additional contexts and community needs/interests. The project is thus forming a substrate—an ever-expanding, accessible foundation of experimental exhibitions and new (and hopefully unexpected) forms of cultural engagement from which interested communities might be equitably and creatively sustained.”

I’m also delighted to share some of the participating students’ reflections on their experiences below.

Casper Torres:

Substrate was a unique opportunity to learn the process of curating work through participation and experimentation rather than from a purely theoretical perspective. Many of the early discussions revolved around both the practical and philosophical aspects of picking certain works over others. In particular, while we all agreed to shine light on non-European work, it took some time to work out how to approach work with this in mind along with the overall throughline of the exhibition once enough selections were collected. Specifically when I was selecting pieces for Universum, three-dimensional work tended to stand out to me in two ways. To start with, there is a personal connection present as my interests favor sculpture, ceramics, and installation. Therefore working on this project established new ways to present three-dimensional art to an audience that may not have been able to see it otherwise.

There was a consistent pattern of less information being readily available the further away from Europe and the United States the birthplace of a work was. This pattern highlighted the colonialist history of curatorial spaces and how its legacy can dictate how information is stored. One hope for the exhibition is that it subverts the prioritization of Eurocentric history in favor of lesser known stories from Latin America and the Middle East.

Miguel Zavala-Lopez:

Having access to such an extensive collection was very exciting and presented itself as a way of centering our communities outside of the European settler narrative. As someone who is majoring in Studio Arts and Ethnic Studies incorporating new technology into my practices opened my eyes to what some of the challenges facing equitable access to new media and Web3.

Having had the opportunity to visit the exhibition The World Made Wondrous: The Dutch Collector’s Cabinet and the Politics of Possession really made me reflect on ownership and possession of items through a critical lens. The artwork that is displayed in the library is connected to the exhibition: while the library is beautiful at a glance, beginning to analyze art pieces like the murals by Dean Cornwell that showcase the “Four Great Eras of California History” and its celebration of colonization is only one example of how difficult it will be to move past the the crises of the past into a new future.

Shereen Moustafa:

This collaborative project was inherently very fluid, because everyone contributed their personal influences. The collections’ Middle Eastern artworks resonated with me most. I was drawn to the naturalistic and botanical patterns, which were reminiscent of the Egyptian artwork and heirlooms that surrounded me growing up. I rarely see Middle Eastern art represented in Western museums and I’m grateful that with this curatorial opportunity I got to select such works that resonated with me and hopefully other people.

Being on site at the library informed the portion of the project I directed: the video you see on the 28-foot screen at the Los Angeles Central Library. I wanted to bring the existing works I curated to life, and so I used this opportunity to animate the images that I selected: three Iranian tiles with koi fish and botanical features, and a Japanese bracelet with hard checkers set against soft sakura. I collaborated with animators Mark and Milo to breathe life into the works as the koi swim, flowers bloom, and kaleidoscopic floral motifs dilate. A lot of my creative process was rooted in my paintings, which I used to get to know the images and reimagine them.

Mark Sosa:

What first drew me to this project was that I would be able to get the chance to apply what I learned up to this point in my education. I had just finished an internship working in AR, so I was moving towards a direction where I could create works in new media and digital art. 

One of the first challenges that came up when working on this project was figuring out the right method to animate each artwork. There was no easy way around it, or any shortcuts. But it allowed me to learn more about the principles of animations. Which is something I would be able to take on with me for future projects.

Conclusion—Nancy Baker Cahill:

I am so inspired by the students’ insights and responses above, all of which describe their crucial involvement far more eloquently than I can summarize. I will conclude with a few more thoughts from my original whitepaper regarding my ongoing goals and hopes for the project: 

“Cultural resources are abundant yet remain scarce due to accessibility issues, institutional gatekeeping, the externalities of poverty, unequal educational systems, and cultural biases. Misinformation and book banning are increasing in the U.S., as educational budgets are slashed. Arts programs are rarely protected or even recognized as critical to community health. Access to cultural artifacts, histories, and narratives provides the connective tissue that allows us to recognize our shared humanity and to strengthen communities, particularly those with fewer resources. In addition, a deep engagement with art, texts, social movements, and histories counters despair and increases creative agency. Techno-utopian hype about decentralization, data sovereignty, and individual autonomy dominates public conversations about Web3, yet it has largely failed to deliver on those promises. Radical inequalities continue to abound, and what economist Yanis Varoufakis calls 'technofeudalism' has taken hold. Substrate challenges the early techno-colonial roots of blockchain, interrogating terms like transparency, equity, accountability, and trustless trust, asking whether they do or do not support opportunities for social and epistemic justice using a blend of art and technology.

Mycologists articulate the distributive methods and infrastructure of mycelia’s miraculous natural system, and how mycorrhizal 'decisions' are made with the good of the whole in mind rather than privileging the few. This system is notably unfamiliar in contemporary Western life. The dialectic of transparency and opacity poses an apparent dissonance between the promised 'trustless' transparency of consensus algorithms and the necessary opacity of certain algorithmic models. Engineers working on the Filecoin protocol will help investigate and construct the innate capacities, governance, protocols, and limitations of how information is securely stored, shared, disseminated, or revealed in the service of community-determined cultural and civic engagement. Secondary data could be generated on-chain to expand the reach and depth of these new forms of engagement. The infrastructures and methodologies of the technologies in comparison to mycelium networks will work in tandem with the project as an AR artwork housed in the atrium of the LACPL. Looking ahead, Substrate establishes new modes of responsive, blockchain-based projects predicated on their ability to be shared, linked, and networked, with an end goal of an open-source model that could be used by any number of communities in collaboration with LACMA and local libraries.” 

The Art + Technology Lab is presented by

The Art + Technology Lab is made possible by Snap Inc.

Additional support is provided by SpaceX.

The Lab is part of The Hyundai Project: Art + Technology at LACMA, a joint initiative exploring the convergence of art and technology.

Seed funding for the development of the Art + Technology Lab was provided by the Los Angeles County Quality and Productivity Commission through the Productivity Investment Fund and LACMA Trustee David Bohnett.