The Red Earth Project
Studio Hanniball, Berlin 2022
Studio Hanniball presents a solo exhibition by Michael Salu – Red Earth: Computational explorations between Non-western and western ontology
- As the red band of fire begins to fade from the sky,
- I scan lands where the earth too is red,
–Red Earth, 2021.
The exhibition “RED EARTH” examines how non-Western cultures can be more adequately represented in the increasingly digitalized, virtual world. Like the technological and philosophical advancements of the enlightenment period and the industrial revolution, the digital age, founded in data and code, utilizes other cultures as resources to fuel its autonomous thinking but overlooks their schools of thought.
Yet, the relationship between Western and non-Western cultures and the physical and the digital world is not of total detachment but complex exchange and dependence. In this area of tension, a constant back and forth translation between the two realms takes place, and the artist Michael Salu represents this complex process. The British-born Nigerian, who grew up between two cultures, investigates the ideological overlaps that get lost or inadequately passed on in translation.
Take the concept of time as one example: In the Yoruba tradition (the culture of Michael Salu’s origin in Nigeria), time has always been understood differently from the Western tradition. It is continuous, non-linear, and not measured in typically human entities such as life and death. Therefore, this ancient philosophy does not see life as something that ends with death but as a continuum. One can find parallels in the recently emerging philosophical movement of transhumanism in Western culture, which predicts and advocates the enhancement of the human condition by developing sophisticated technologies that could significantly enhance our longevity and cognitive abilities. Despite the apparent similarities, ideas such as the Yoruba concept of time are suppressed and silently assimilated in the dominant discourse about transhumanism. What will happen if non-western cultures continue to be underrepresented and overlooked as we use our intelligence to build our increasingly digitized world? Translations between these realms – sometimes only in one direction or inadequately in both directions – are significant to Salu’s artistic research.
Time weaves into another aspect of this area of tension, the extraction of resources from regions such as West Africa. The exhibition’s title “RED EARTH” refers to the red clay earth dominant in the landscape of southern Nigeria. This type of clay is of little economic use unless transformed into nutritious soil on which one can grow crops and sustain life through several ancient processes. The eventual profiteer of this transformation are dominant economies that use these resources (be they oil, metals, human labour or data) to further enhance the technology that forms the basis of the growing virtual world. The latter is dominated by Western thought, and its code’s etymology lacks the structure to consider non-Western culture. The transformation of the red clay into nutritious soil becomes both a metaphor and a real example of the faulty translation and technological exchange happening between the universalized Western culture and non-Western culture.
The Yoruba language, traditionally strong with physical expression, uses physical objects such as totems made from the red clay earth to communicate ideas. Salu asks how the physical aspects of the Yoruba language can be represented and translated effectively in digital languages, such as code, that form the architecture of the virtual world. In RED EARTH, Salu conceptually translates between the Yoruba language and code.
The exhibition integrates different mediums such as photography, prose, code to image and textile to explore the idea of translation between the physical and the virtual and the breaking points between Yoruba and Western culture. RED EARTH begins with a series of photographs taken just before and during Covid, inspiring an original book-length prose that examines the different cultural understandings of time, space, language, and morality.
This prose forms the central panel of this project. Furthermore, machine learning is used in a controlled manner to translate pieces of this work of prose written by Salu into visual data that he then uses to manually create virtual sculptures, referencing traditional Yoruba totems of thought. Lastly, a Yoruba textile called Așǫ Oke was tailor-made and hand-woven in Nigeria, especially for this exhibition. This fabric depicts a network analysis from the same prose work, using a deep learning model to locate patterns within this prose. This exhibition piece translates three eras of technology.