Denaturalizing the Algorithm with Mimi Ọnụọha

By Amanda Dibando Awanjo

Nigerian-American artist Mimi Ọnụọha begins her artist talk with a picture of her mother. This photo from Ọnụọha’s informal family archive, wrapped in all of the natural warmth that emanates from family vacations and holidays, is contrasted to similar images pulled up within the Google image search engine. The distance between the algorithm that connects the images from her family archive and the images Google decides are similar is loose and the gaps apparent. As Mimi Ọnụọha points out, the poetry of the grid that connects these images and represents our contemporary relationship to image aggregation and organization is as recognizable to us as it is brittle. This was a part of Ọnụọha’s moving image project, “Us, Aggregated, 3.0” in which the artist explores or relationship to often invisible algorithms and their very visible effects on our lives.

Screengrab from Mimi Ọnụọha’s “Us Aggregated, 3.0”
Screengrab from Mimi Ọnụọha’s “Us Aggregated, 3.0”

Centered on the question, “in a tech mediated world, what appears as natural?” Mimi Ọnụọha’s artistic practice explores the power imbalances that make up our technology empowered reality. Ọnụọha seeks to denaturalize what algorithms have made “natural” by encouraging audiences to pull at the threads of our technological world. By troubling the systems and processes that technology renders invisible, her work focuses on the “hair on the thread” of these hierarchal structures. That is to say that her work pulls at the thread of “tech companies who have unprecedented access to information and the ability to dictate the terms, upon which that information is seen. They return a version of the world that is interpreted but projected as it’s the whole world”.

While she describes herself as “form-agnostic,” this attention to the power imbalance is a reoccurring theme in her multi-disciplinary work. Naming “those of us who create these systems and those of us who get caught up in them,” her projects Us Aggregated, 3.0, The Future is Here!, Natural, or: Where Are We Allowed to Be, and These Networks in Our Skin focus in on how the embedded racial, class, and colonial hierarchies of these project-ed worlds “are treated as fact and valued” realities.

Part of Ọnụọha’s work of destabilizing the systems of power that inform our technological world means finding new centers of power and collaboration. Within the project Natural, or: Where Are We Allowed to Be, Ọnụọha troubles space and racial hierarchy by considering “narratives of space and how those narratives fix people to certain spaces”. For Black subjects, the “projected reality” that the grid and its invisible algorithms binds them within a particular space and a particularly narrative. Often this positions Black bodies, Black stories, and Black history on the grid and within the timeline without nuance and without historical context, and most importantly without the input of those within the community. Positioning Black bodies as stewards of the technologies that inform our realities is a radical restructuring. This reimagining pulls on the naturalized world created by algorithms and realizes the space as brittle.

Learn more about Mimi Ọnụọha and her work. View her Year of Data and Society presentation.