Introducing our 2021 Creative Resident: Ayana Cotton

Spearheaded and curated by Ginkgo Bioworks and design agency Faber Futures, the Ginkgo Creative Residency provides an experimental platform for creative thinkers to explore at the intersection of design and biology. This year in our fourth open call, we asked designers to think critically about meaning: How have language, metaphor, and fiction shaped synthetic biology, and can we find new scripts to generate other meanings? If DNA is the “code of life”, what new perspectives can help us read, think, story and make worlds with biology?

Following the review of applications from 24 countries across five continents, we are thrilled to welcome Ayana Cotton as Ginkgo’s 2021 Creative Resident! During their three month residency at Ginkgo, Ayana will converge the disciplines of art, writing, and programming to weave experimental, speculative fiction through a triptych of short stories taking root in a parallel universe.

Ayana Zaire Cotton is a non-binary, neurodivergent artist, writer and software engineer living in Dawn, Virginia, USA — understanding there is more that binds these disciplines than separates them, they can best be described as a weaver engaged in a practice of “Sankofa Narration”. Sankofa is a word and symbol of Ghana’s Akan Twi and Fante languages, which translates to “go back and get”. Centring a Sankofa sensibility, today, they build databases as vessels holding seed data and experiment with shuffling algorithms to spin non-linear narratives to construct new stories (worlds) from the “digital waste” of our existing one.

In the last years, Ayana designed and built databases to weave non-linear narratives from foraged text. They recently developed the Black Feminist World Database (BFWD), consisting of curated excerpts from digital artefacts in the form of biographies, interviews, and scholarly articles of Black feminist world builders born between the 1700s to the 2000s. Inspired by Alexis Pauline Gumb’s call for us to find ceremony, they’ve created Daily Seed as a monthly zine of daily, non-linear narratives woven using the seed data and shuffling algorithms of the Black Feminist World Database.

As Ginkgo’s creative in residence, Ayana will continue their practice of reverence, remembrance, and worldbuilding using language. Building on their experience constructing generative databases as well as themes identified in their recent body of research titled “Crafting Care: The Spiritual Poetics of Design, Computation, and Abolition”, Ayana will collect layers of meaning from the Ginkgo lab and algorithmically weave them into three short stories bringing us into the mythology of Cykofa, a place on the North Carolina Black River. In Ayana’s words: “This world is made up of similar “laws of nature” we’re familiar with, except in Cykofa, cornrows are cryptography keys, the architecture is assembled with forest material for ephemerality, historical and research “documents” are woven cloth read-only through weaving patterns and the trees have learned from the data we’ve encoded in their DNA, allowing them to communicate with those who know how to access the memory stored in their tree rings.” We’ll get to experience this world via narrations from the perspective of a bald cypress tree over 2,600 years old and of a young, dark-skinned, non-binary biotechnologist living in Cykofa.

Ayana is our fifth Creative Resident, following Natsai Audrey Chieza, Yasaman Sheri, Andrea Ling, and the duo Monika Seyfried and Cyrus Clarke. Learning from the Hybrid Lab experience of the previous cohort, Ayana will design their working methods to bridge time spent immersed in the Ginkgo lab with moments for embodied research, reflection and creation in ancient woodlands. As we all find our feet and learn to navigate the world as reframed by the COVID-19 pandemic, we are very excited to explore collaborative and dynamic methodologies to reveal the meaning of what we do.

Ayana will receive mentorship from the creative residency team at Ginkgo Bioworks and Faber Futures. We also welcome our external jury to offer our residents critical perspectives and additional mentorship: poet and artist Sasha Stiles, social scientist Jane Calvert and Beth Semel, scholar and Associate Director of the Language and Technology Lab at MIT.

We’re excited to have Ayana join us and will be sharing updates on their time at Ginkgo here on the blog and on the Ginkgo Creative Residency’s Instagram @ginkgocreativeresidency.

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