Social Software—Makeshift
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Artist Binta Ayofemi sees social code embedded in everyday objects

— Social Software

At first glance, a project rooted in open-source software might evoke images of computers and codes—a digital realm. Yet for Binta Ayofemi, the analog world is rich with these systems too. In her ongoing project, “Software”, the San Francisco-based artist identifies open-source ‘code’ in the everyday—from Shaker-style furniture to Soul Train music—and explores how, through variation and repetition, they can rewire how we process and relate to our daily experiences in the world.

SocialSoftware2She’s currently an artist-in-residence at the New Museum of Contemporary Art’s artistic incubator program in New York City, where she is using urban land design and plant materials to explore how space, texture, and patterns inform our daily behaviors. For her latest exhibition, Binta has planted a series of gardens in Chicago’s gritty South Side neighborhood. She aims to unlock social rituals in the public realm: afternoon strolls, family gatherings, and play time. Makeshift caught up with Binta about spotting “social software” and why it matters for technology and communities.

Makeshift: When did you first start seeing software in everyday places and experiences?

BA: I grew up in Brooklyn, New York, on the edge of Prospect Park. It was my first exposure to urban space as an immersive system. I realized later that the park entrance was an imaginary punctuation that changed the language of our street. Now, as an artist who studies landscape, architecture, and literature, I see the park as a kind of software. The designs of both Prospect Park and Central Park in Manhattan are early virtual systems that activate the senses with deep layers of information, from the plants and geologies to the paths and common spaces. They’re all constructed to be generative and to exceed their original plan. The park is great code; it’s language.

How does software shape how we understand the world?
Software is a way to rehearse forms, relationships, and the senses. It’s a form of ritual that
shifts how we perceive and act in the world. It creates an interface for human exchange. Whether you’re on the steps of a museum or sharing a public table, this shared expanse is a rehearsal of how we connect, how we read each other, how we share possibility.

Where do you see examples of social software in our everyday world? What analog objects have these codes?
I see patterned rugs and quilts as early software, as encoded data in both material and narrative terms. The Underground Railroad for American slaves, for example, can be understood as directions, metaphors, and way-finding cues—a social code that successfully rewired America in the 19th century.

My recent dance works, performed in San Francisco at Kadist Foundation and SF Museum of Modern Art, imagine the Soul Train dance program and funk/disco as a form of utopian rehearsal, as popular software that changed social relations through movement and music.

Shaker furniture, with its plainness and openness, and the vibrant colors and alternating patterns of African-American quilts—these are interfaces that may suggest a freedom of the senses, a spaciousness without hierarchy. During my research trips to Isfahan, Iran, I was equally struck by the intricately patterned surfaces of the public architecture. These surfaces activate the senses through texture and repetition, and they order the way the city is understood by its inhabitants.

Somehow, both the simplest and the most intricate surfaces can suggest infinity, subtly triggering the senses and guiding our routines.

How can social software give us inspiration for creating new technologies?
Plants, parks, and gardens can easily inspire how present technologies are imagined and disseminated. The park is free. Gardens and orchards can begin from clippings and become full systems. Lately I’ve begun to blend plants as technology—technology that repeats itself with nuance and flexibility, technology that scales without waste. As a result, I’m now prototyping new plant-based materials and electronics in my artist-led research lab, Pollen.

You talk about these codes as “open-source”. What does your social software mean for community?

What I learned from working with urban gardens and working with youth is that open-source models provide you with a set of rules with endless variation. In this way, open-source software is an invitation. It entices; it’s accessible. We can think about this as we’re designing for public space, technology, education—how do we engage people and create a true platform for creation and exchange?

I remember once standing in front of trees with some of my students and realizing that complex systems are best expressed in simple forms. It enables them to be repeatable and sharable, like music.

Binta’s exhibition, “Software”, opens in San Francisco and New York in December 2015. 


  • Leonardo Starling



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