155 Diana J. Nucera working as Mother Cyborg

Born Chicago, IL, 1981 / BFA, San Francisco Art Institute, CA;  MFA, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, IL / Lives in Detroit

WHAT IS AN ALGORITHM?” Ask Mimi Onuoha and Mother Cyborg in their 2018 zine A People’s Guide to Artificial Intelligence. If the question appears startling in its directness, it may be because we have become accustomed to having the spotlight pointed in the opposite direction, to have algorithms direct their gaze on us. Onouha and Cyborg’s zine is a grassroots statement of non-conformity to this power dynamic.

There is also a message in the medium. Zines are a quintessentially DIY form of publishing that connected networks of like-minded individuals long before the internet. For Diana Nucera, a young, “queer-as-fuck” Latina woman growing up in the conservative and overwhelmingly white rural town of Frankfort, Indiana during the ’90s, they were how she transcended her immediate surroundings and discovered the power of community.      

A critical juncture on Nucera’s path was the 1999 Midwest Zine Conference in Bowling Green, Ohio, which was effectively the inaugural edition of the annual, Detroit-based Allied Media Conference. Nucera’s journey has been intertwined with Allied Media’s practice-based examination of the relationship between social justice and technology ever since. 

In 2008, Nucera moved to Detroit to work on the Allied Media Conference before eventually became director of the Equitable Internet Initiative, an Allied Media-sponsored project to create a grassroots internet in three Detroit neighborhoods. The project aims to reduce the digital divide by increasing digital literacy and awareness while also bringing higher-speed internet to low-income communities that commercial service providers often overlook. 

Underpinning the EII is a pedagogy of educating people by working collectively on an injustice that directly affects them. The methodology is frequently associated with the influential Brazilian educator Paulo Freire, but a significant historical precedent is the civil rights-era Freedom Schools that taught literacy to black people in the Jim Crow south so they could pass written tests intended to prevent them from voting. For Nucera, digital literacy is a contemporary civil rights issue that requires similarly creative solutions.

In Nucera’s universe, the boundary between art and activism is porous. Her life project is motivated by a vision of the future where the greatest possibilities for humanity and technology converge. Her methods are diverse and ever-expanding; a partial list might include music-making, performance, education, community organizing, gardening, research, writing, publication, and object-making. Working behind the scenes, she is Diana, but in her public-facing creative activities, she is Mother Cyborg.

“THE YEAR IS NOW 2084, AND YOU’VE WOKEN FROM A DEEP, FROZEN SLEEP,” Cyborg narrates in a 2019 video, invoking a speculative fiction exercise from A People’s Guide where workshop participants imagine positive future uses of AI.   

“YOU FREEZE YOURSELF, AND YOU WAKE UP,” croons Cyborg, slipping effortlessly into a beautiful, hypnagogic singing voice.

“WHILE YOU’VE BEEN ASLEEP, SOME THINGS HA-AVE CHAY-YANGED,” Cyborg continues before narrating a list of techno-utopian applications for AI. 

“NOW STEP FORTH AND MOVE THOSE FEET. THIS NEW WORLD AWAITS; YOUR TENDER HEARTS SPEAK,” the voice softly commands, re-affirming the possibility that another world is possible and re-grounding the listener in the dancefloor, which for Nucera is a physical and metaphorical place of both pleasure and liberation.

Of course, Nucera is not naive enough to think that someday we will all wake up, Rip Van Winkle-like, to find digital technology serving humanity, not capital. Rather, her thought experiment is akin to Gramsci’s dictum that we should be “pessimists of the intellect and optimists of the will.” But working through Mother Cyborg, there is another twist: Nucera’s use of creative activity to stimulate both critical and speculative thinking.   

The DATA CRIMINALIZATION QUILTING BEE was a 2021 workshop at MOCAD where participants learned basic quilting skills while considering solutions to real-world civil rights issues raised by surveillance capitalism and state surveillance access to our digital identity. 

Digital civil rights and quilting form an unlikely but inspired combination, creating a holistic experience that engages the hands and heart as much as the mind. In that vein, Nucera has manufactured a groundbreaking series of works. The Platforms are Segregating Us (2020) repurposes quilting’s traditional tumbling block design to represent big data’s need to aggregate and compartmentalize – sometimes known as “cubing.” Infinite Data (2020) juxtaposes the ubiquitous digital binary with the infinite knot, a traditional symbol of wholeness. 

But most remarkable is Mestizos404 (2020). The title concatenates Nucera’s mixed heritage with “404,” the HTTP term for information not found. Nucera comes from a lineage of Latina seamstresses but feels that processes of assimilation have denied her access to this ancestral knowledge. The quilt, with its strings of directional prompts, is about navigating the pain of not belonging by “making your way with instinct, curiosity, and self-love.” It is Nucera/Cyborg’s most personal and heartfelt work to date.

Steve Panton, October 2021

Copyright Essay’d

A People’s Guide to Artificial Intelligence, 2018, Zine
Equitable Internet Initiative, 2016-present, project signage in Detroit’s North End
Diana Nucera Kresge Artist Video, 2019