Mimi Ọnụọha: Making Data Matter

"These Networks In Our Skin," 2021. Moving Image (still), duration: 5:48:00.

Data is often thought of as immaterial, floating in the digital sphere, and evasive. It slips away from our fingertips as we scroll, like, and comment on social media platforms. And yet in her recent solo exhibition at bitforms gallery in New York City, Nigerian-American multimedia artist Mimi Ọnụọha debunked data’s supposed immateriality. In Everything That Didn’t Fit, Ọnụọha centralized data’s materiality and its infrastructures to critically examine the excluded information of people of color, the concern for information privacy, and the case for owning our personal information. But while Ọnụọha exposed the very tools of information extraction, she also proposed other values and modes of knowledge that orient us to the possible futures of digital technologies.

For a long time, Ọnụọha’s research and art have been on my mind. I first came across her work in 2020 at the New School’s exhibition The Question of Intelligence—AI and the Future of Humanity, curated by Christiane Paul. Later, I read her texts “On Missing Data Sets” and “Notes on Algorithmic Violence,” which discuss big data’s intentional omission of datasets of people of color and how algorithms can reinforce inequity and hierarchical structures of power. Each time I see her work, I cannot help but think that new media art practices today are missing a certain self-awareness and could afford to pay more forceful attention to the power dynamics at play within these tools. I have noticed a tendency in other works that use new media to alienate the viewer, regardless of their immersive qualities. Despite their allure—which at times stems simply from the novelty of using overhyped technologies in art—new media works can become one-dimensional. However, Ọnụọha’s works linger for their social awareness.

Mimi Ọnụọha, “An Abridged History,” 2019. Courtesy the artist and bitforms gallery.

At bitforms gallery, a space focused on new media that has previously exhibited work using machine learning, surveillance technologies, and virtual reality, Ọnụọha’s work stood out. Unlike artists who rely on the spectacle of technology (such as by creating flashy, immersive projections on big screens), Ọnụọha centers on the processes of technology—like how data is collected, and how this same data is then abstracted. Her approach to these complexities and difficult discussions that we must have is all the more powerful because she uses humble materials like cables, folders, and cabinets. In an oversaturated, high-tech world that inevitably causes tech fatigue, Everything That Didn’t Fit imbued data with nuance, many moments of respite, possibility, and most of all, substance.

The exhibition comprised three filing cabinets, a series of infographics, photographs, a table overflowing with cables, and a video, all of which made data tangible to the viewer in different ways. The first work viewers encountered was a series of infographics, each print framed and wall-mounted, paying homage to sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois’s research on Black life in America in the 1900s. For example, in the infographic This Land Is My Land (2019), three images of the map of the US illustrate which states contained slave territories in 1858, which contained internment camps in 1944, and, more presently, which states currently contain ICE detention centers operating since 2019. These maps show how important it is to contextualize and make data visible to reveal racist patterns across centuries of systemic oppression that continue to target people of color.

Mimi Ọnụọha, “The Library of Missing Datasets 2.0,” 2018. Image courtesy the artist.

For the series The Library of Missing Datasets (2016, 2018, and 2021), Ọnụọha displayed filing cabinets as the physical containers for the missing and private dataset titles that she has been compiling for years. “Missing datasets” is a term Ọnụọha uses to explain an absence of data within an otherwise large collection and to underscore the omissions and biases that affect people of color. Private datasets, on the other hand, are accessible and only belong to the dataset owner. Each cabinet—filled with empty, labeled manila folders—was a different color. As the exhibition catalogue explained, the gold cabinet held datasets related to Blackness—its color meant to speak as much to value as to realities of wealth extraction—while the black one contained private datasets and was kept closed during the exhibition, to protect these folders from the viewer’s gaze. The empty folders were labeled with a wide range of dataset titles that Ọnụọha has bookmarked, such as “People excluded from housing due to criminal records,” “Uncounted deaths tied to Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico,” and even “Plant varieties lost to industrial agricultural specialization.” Opening and closing these cabinet drawers—as revealing as it was overwhelming—recalled trying to look up this data on a Google search only to receive the “no results” message. But in this case, the countless empty folders made these omissions more visible.

Mimi Ọnụọha, “These Networks In Our Skin,” 2021 (still). Image courtesy of the artist.

The video These Networks In Our Skin (2021) offers an intimate view into the labor of four women who rewire cables with Black hair and spices. The camera zooms in on the women’s hands and the materials they yield as they delicately open the cables with box-cutter knives, crush and grind up different herbs and red spices using a mortar and pestle, and prepare the hair that will replace the wires. These gestures become rituals inspired by Igbo culture, that, together with the dream-like soundtrack of the video, help direct us to a new cosmology of technology. The video invites the viewer to meditate on how these women slowly unwind the techno-culture of acceleration, consumption, and exponentialism personified by the internet cables, and repair the internet with different values of care, community, and new ideas of connectivity. The accompanying installation, The Hair in the Cable (2021), comprised an assortment of rewoven internet cables that spiraled and spilled from beyond a wooden table. Its large physical presence in the exhibition space drew you close, inviting you to almost “feel” its tactility—the texture of the spices, the hair, the cables—embodying new visions of digital technologies in society that are just within reach if we are attentive enough.

Too often in art as in life, optimism or pessimism come across as an easy binary, as seen in the recent optimism of many NFT art enthusiasts, or the images of a precarious society from Peter Burr’s DIRTSCRAPER (2019), or the “dystopian sublime” of Jon Rafman’s later work. Everything That Didn’t Fit orients us to an absence—both in terms of occluded or ignored data and individuals, but also of an absence created from refusing to look beyond one single model of thinking, living, and being in the world, like the one currently spearheaded by technocolonialism. These absences, in turn, also direct us to spaces of opportunity. It is only by returning to the meaning of the materials themselves, like the residue of the spices or the texture of the hair interlocked with the wires, that we find alternative world-making threads waiting to be imagined and harnessed. Ọnụọha reassures us that a different world is possible.

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