Dark Laboratory to amplify Black, Indigenous voices
By Kate Blackwood
Dark Laboratory, a “humanities incubator” for digital storytelling with a special focus on Black and Indigenous voices in upstate New York, will go public on Oct. 12, Indigenous Peoples’ Day, with a virtual gathering and website launch open to all.
The project is led by Tao Leigh Goffe, assistant professor of Africana Studies and Feminist, Gender and Sexuality Studies; and Jeffrey Palmer, assistant professor of Performing and Media Arts, both in the College of Arts and Sciences.
Dark Laboratory received a grant from the Society for the Humanities’ Rural Humanities initiative; the theme this academic year is “Rural Black Lives.”
“The mission of the Dark Laboratory is giving people, especially Black and Indigenous people, community and digital platforms to tell their stories,” Palmer said.
“We want to fund and amplify Black and Indigenous narratives of local storytellers, especially about the human relationship to ecology,” Goffe said. “We also want to provide a horizontal and vertical network of mentorship.”
Backing Dark Laboratory’s call for stories is an advisory board of well-known figures in Hollywood, literature, academia and other fields, including documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson Jr.; filmmaker N. Bird Runningwater; critic, filmmaker and public intellectual Henry Louis Gates Jr.; and Tracy K. Smith, U.S. poet laureate from 2017-19.
Some of these luminaries will give lightning talks at the Oct. 12 launch, as will the directors of the Rural Humanities initiative.
In addition, Goffe and Palmer have assembled a team of more than 30 artists and practitioners – from storytellers and filmmakers to software engineers, professors and students – who can help story projects take shape using film, sound, virtual reality and augmented reality technologies.
“A huge part of the laboratory is putting people in the position to tell their stories to the world through technology,” said Palmer. “The output could be a documentary film. It could be a virtual reality immersive experience or a podcast. We’re always looking to tell stories in the medium that will reach the most people.”
The tight focus on the Black and Indigenous stories from Ithaca and New York state serves as a springboard for global questions of colonialism, Goffe said.
“We begin with Ithaca and Black and Native communities, but also expand that question by using Ithaca as a framework and Cornell as a framework for thinking about this question of global indigeneity,” she said. “We would like to be inclusive, to ask everyone the questions: What does it mean to be indigenous? Who is Indigenous? How is Black and Indigenous life entangled in various places across the globe?”
In addition to partnering with Native and Black communities in Ithaca, the Dark Laboratory has connected with international organizations, including the National Archives of the Netherlands and the National Museum of Finland to explore the question of European indigenous groups such as the Sami, who are native people of Scandinavia; and with organizations in New Zealand to learn about Maori forms of storytelling.
“We see the question of indigeneity, geography and dispossession as a global question we are trying to open up,” Goffe said.
Goffe and Palmer are both experienced in using technology to tell stories in new and different forms on various platforms. Goffe taught a summer workshop in the Milstein Program in Technology and Humanity; Palmer was nominated for an Emmy for his documentary film “N. Scott Momaday: Words from a Bear.”
Both professors belong to a collaborative fellowship group in Critical Media Practice supported by Critical Inquiry into Value, Imagination and Culture (CIVIC), the Provost’s Radical Collaboration taskforce for the humanities and arts.
After the launch, the Dark Laboratory plans a series of virtual events for 2020-21, as well as a podcast set to debut later this fall. Next fall, Goffe said, the Dark Laboratory will be a graduate course she and Palmer will co-teach.
Kate Blackwood is a writer for the College of Arts and Sciences.