A School for Vernacular Algorithms

More information coming … please feel free to contact me directly if you would like more information on the development of this work and the community around it. 

In an investigation that started in 2018 and led by questions I had on the colonial disenfranchisement of pre-colonial African cultural led techne-cultures, the projects of a ‘Vocabulary for Vernacular Algorithms’ and ‘School for Vernacular Algorithms’ was born (2018 – today).  The entire project in its various public facing and collaborative forms is an interrogation of algorithmic thinking, using ‘Vernacular Algorithms’ firstly as a lens through which to explore lack of egalitarianism and aesthetic centric techne cultures in contemporary algorithmic thinking. And secondly to develop a curriculum for learning maths, code and algorithmic thinking through indigenous and vernacular African art forms such as beadwork, basketry and song.

An Overview

The journey of these projects started with research into pre-colonial technology culture and taking students into the Wits Art Museum to interrogate the collection through the lens of fractal mathematics (in response to Ron Eglash’s African Fractals: Modern Computing and Indigenous Design) and undocumented pre-colonial techne-cultures. The philosophical and critical enquiry aimed at:

  • decolonise the notion that technical knowledges are only Western;
  • understand the fascinating relationship between technical and cultural knowledges in Africa;
  • bring this knowledge into contemporary African computing and digital practices and thereby an intergenerational link in maths and culture in Africa;
  • build confidence in young African learners on the relevance of their cultures in a technology orientated society.

Following this I led a serious of public facing workshops took place between 2018 and 2020 that invited cultural practitioners and coders to give input on what a “curriculum for vernacular algorithms” should look like.

The project asks philosophical and practical questions to egalitarian ‘systems thinking’ in traditional African cultural practices. Asking how vernacular ‘algorithmic thinking’ can be used to unpack and critique contemporary computing and the algorithmic organisation of society; which has come to dominate not only our digital but lived experiences.

One side the outcomes are a practical focus on what can be learned from African beadwork, palm / grass weaving, and lyrical practices in Southern Africa from a mathematical and algorithmic perspective. While simultaneously and very importantly questioning how egalitarian techne cultures engage: logic, maths, lived experience, history, environmental and cultural contexts into a single system.

Beadwork by Philisiwe Dube

A Vocabulary for Vernacular Algorithms

The first iteration of ‘A Vocabulary for Vernacular Algorithms’  was presented at the Wits Art Museum and the ZKM Karlsruher as part of the Digital Imaginaries exhibition series and publication. A workshop series that was born in this programme was led by myself and in intermittent collaboration with Alex Coehlo (MZ), Russel Hlongwane (ZA).  The workshops took place in multiple communities in South Africa, Senegal, Morocco and even Germany, and were aimed at understanding communally the potential for an intergenerational practice (like beadwork) to not only build a bridge to learning the principles of computer coding, but further learn about and interrogate contemporary algorithmic thinking.

Beadwork to Code – interactive installation by Tegan Bristow

A School for Vernacular Algorithms

In 2020, ‘A School for Vernacular Algorithms’ (2020 – today) was formed by invitation from French / Senegalese curator Oulimata Gueye and formed part of the exhibition she developed titled the UFA – University of African Futures at Le Lieu Unique in Nantes, France. The school offered a three part interrogation of algorithmic thinking in Southern African cultural practices – rhythm, beadwork and creative coding – led by me on the principles developed in the ‘Vocabulary for Vernacular Algorithms’ in collaboration with Nhlanhla Mthlangu (sound and lyrical algorithms), Philisiwe Dube (beadwork, algorithms and maths), Laurent Malys (code school in France).

We aim to enact and publish a curriculum for the School of Vernacular Algorithms in 2022.

Nhlanhla Mthlangu

Tegan Bristow

Philisiwe Dube