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Friday, June 9 • 5:10pm - 5:30pm
Almost Human(ist): Monster Theory, Frankenstein, and Critical Making

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During the 2020–2021 academic year, I managed a collaborative critical making project titled “FrankenProject” that produced a touch interface able to remediate—or, facilitate user-generated glitch readings of—Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. FrankenProject is made up of three main components. The first is the physical interface I built, which is comprised of a Styrofoam head and ten 3D-printed hands, all of which are covered in conductive paint and wired to a computer via an Arduino using alligator clips. The second component is a transductive engine programmed to “know” when someone is touching the head or hands and translate the user’s physical touch into data. This data influences the third component (which is sutured into the second): a GPT-2 poetry generator that creates a poem on screen and layers other audiovisual elements—“apparitions,” as I like to call them—on top of it based on user input. When wired together, FrankenProject “comes alive” and responds to users who can touch any metal or conductive-painted surface, including the Arduino itself. As they do so, they become literally and figuratively connected to Shelley’s Frankenstein, and they join Victor Frankenstein on his journey from interested party to creator to spectator as his/their creature/assemblage acts in/on the world.

FrankenProject fits within the theme of HASTAC 2023 as an example of creative activist scholarship, and this paper will focus on FrankenProject’s various physical and digital pieces built specifically with anti-racist initiatives in mind. As FrankenProject’s construction coincided with multiple national- and international social upheavals (i.e., the Covid-19 pandemic, the George Floyd protests, the 2020 presidential election, etc.), I was motivated to incorporate as much anti-racist imagery into FrankenProject as possible. For example, upon touching a hand that was fully coated in conductive paint (making it darker than those around it), strings of words—excerpts from Frankenstein—begin to run across the screen. These strings, which are designed to look like sutures, eventually sketch out an aerial view of Atlanta’s highway system, which is a poster child for the segregation-based building practices, or “racial zoning”, that was common in the 1950s and 60s. This text-based highway system is just one of multiple multimodal apparitions a user may encounter in a single FrankenProject experience (each iteration is different), and as they continue piling up on screen, they grow individually and collectively cacophonous—monstrous, even.

The multiplicitous monstrosity of FrankenProject is deliberate, and FrankenProject offers a blueprint of how researchers can suture anti-racist elements into their scholarship. For my paper presentation, I will demo FrankenProject, describe the physical and digital anti-racist imagery, and discuss the ramifications of joining critical making and Frankenstein using monster theory as the tie that binds. Ratto emphasizes the process of creation rather than the result of that creation, thus making critical making naturally disposed to self-reflexivity; Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s monsters work in much the same way, “ask[ing] us how we perceive the world, and how we have misrepresented what we have attempted to place. They ask us to reevaluate our cultural assumptions about race, gender, sexuality, our perception of difference, our tolerance toward its expression. They ask us why we have created them” (20). Critical making is more than a little monstrous—occupying the liminal space(s) between scholarly inquiry, artistic prototyping, and technical practice—and FrankenProject proves that anti-racist elements can be part of every project.


Calvin Olsen

PhD Candidate, North Carolina State University

Friday June 9, 2023 5:10pm - 5:30pm EDT
ARC E-02