As a filmmaker, Terence Nance is represented by a handful of diverse and beguiling shorts and one entirely sui generis feature, 2012’s An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, a shape-shifting piece of self-analysis that might be said to anticipate the restless reinvention of Nance’s body of work as a whole.

Nance was at Sundance not with a film but with the moving-image improvisation “18 Black Girls / Boys Ages 1-18 Who Have Arrived at the Singularity and Are Thus Spiritual Machines: $X in an Edition of $97 Quadrillion,” a live performance of an experiment whose previous iterations can be found online. Counting up year by year, Nance enters prompts from “One-year-old black boy” to “Eighteen-year-old black boy” (or “girl,” depending on the night) into Google and follows the predictive search prompts provided, thereby piecing together a narrative of black youth as filtered by algorithm. The laptop browser appears writ large on a cinema-sized screen, rendering a typically private and intimate experience epic, and an extra dimension is added by the presence of Nance’s brother, who turns the audio of YouTube clips and text-to-speech readbacks into warped and distressed beats and loops. (Adding still another unpredictable element was a live-chat sidebar between Nance and a certain someone identifying himself as “Ta-Nehisi,” there to discuss the pornographic lure of snuff video and the Sisyphean nature of engaged art.)

In a festival glutted with raising-awareness docs and earnest issue-driven indies, this offering of the New Frontier section was the most original, introspective, and legitimately troubling work to be found. Following the performance, Film Comment found time to catch up with Nance to find out a little bit about what had just happened, and to get a sense of what is coming next.

Swimming in Your Skin Again Terence Nance

Swimming in Your Skin Again

After the first performance I saw you speak about the genesis of the project, and the fact that it had come up during casting for your 2015 short Swimming in Your Skin Again. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Yeah. In making Swimming in Your Skin Again, we had to cast several young boy characters, all black. So I asked that we cast 10-year-old black boys, or 9-year-old black boys. I can’t remember now. Lucas [Leyva], the executive producer, and Jillian [Mayer], who does Borscht with him, we were all in the room, and I asked, wondered, “What does a 9-year-old boy look like? How tall is he? How old does he actually look?” He was like, “You should just Google it to double-check.” And I said, “Well, that’d be a weird thing to Google, because…” But we Googled it anyway, putting in the words “Nine-year-old black boy,” and the predictive search populated the empty space with “Twerking.” It was odd because my rudimentary understanding of how the whole algorithm worked is that it took data from what people are generally searching for in the world, and it put the most popular searches at the top. I’ve since come to understand that it’s much more complicated than that, it’s a lot more personalized—which is maybe more troubling, because I definitely had never searched for anyone twerking, I’d never put that into Google. But I guess it triangulated lots of data to come up with twerking.

Nevertheless, I thought it was interesting. We started going through the pages at that moment and a portrait gets painted as you look, through the data that generates the identity of these kids, and the determination based on the data that this is what we’re looking for in a kid that age, a black kid that age. At first we were looking at mainly boys and I was like, “I wonder how it would be different for girls?” So then we just started doing it. Because it is different when you separate them. I think if you were to put “black child,” it would be a little less specific. So yeah. I was interested in the portraiture aspect of it, because it’s not a real person, but it is, you know? It’s a thing we’re fathoming somehow, even if it is super personalized, it’s a thing that I’ve been fathoming. Or it’s the thing Google thinks I’m fathoming.

I saw the performance where you were looking at “boys,” which has a definite trajectory to it, beginning with cute, funny appearances on Ellen until, about the age of 10 or 11, when it starts getting into a lot of police shootings. What was the trajectory that emerged in the girls’ piece?

It was similar; there was a turning point when it got really negative, essentially about death. But the turning point came much earlier with girls. I can’t remember the exact age, but I think it was definitely in the toddler range, 4 or 5.

You make an interesting point, that the algorithm, the filter bubble, is specific to you. I wonder if at any point you used anybody else’s computer to run the same searches, just to see how that changed things?

Well, the computer I was using at that performance was a completely new, wiped computer. It had no data on it. That was intentional, I used a completely blank computer to avoid it incorporating previous searches and things like that. But I was told afterward by somebody who has a little bit of knowledge about this that even if you have a blank computer, it’s still is pulling from what type of computer it is …it assumes things about you if you have a Mac versus a PC. So I guess there is no actual blank slate.

18 Black Girls / Boys Ages 1-18 Who Have Arrived at the Singularity and Are Thus Spiritual Machines: $X in an Edition of $97 Quadrillion

18 Black Girls / Boys Ages 1-18 Who Have Arrived at the Singularity and Are Thus Spiritual Machines: $X in an Edition of $97 Quadrillion

Did you have any model that you were using for browsing as public performance? I am by no means somebody comprehensively well-versed in the world of new media art, but I had never really seen anything like that. Was there any precedent that you were looking at, or was that something that you were building from the ground up?

I had never heard of a precedent. But I do remember seeing something after I was already doing it—something related to Muslim women—but it wasn’t a public performance, it was a browser thing that somebody had set up to use the predictive search algorithm for people in their own browser at home. I can’t remember what it was trying to get at exactly, but it was in the same world of, “Look what the predictive search algorithm is coming up with as prompts.” So, yeah, I’m sure that there’s predictive-search art out there. If there’s that one thing, I’m sure there are others.

When you’re anticipating doing browsing as a public performance for the first time, something that is generally not a particularly theatrical experience, and tends to be a pretty solitary experience, how do you think about it translating into something that’s going to play for an audience?

I mean, I didn’t. I didn’t think about how it would play. I was more interested in just finding out. Just bearing witness to whatever it would be. And obviously, there was some fear about how engaging it might be for anyone to watch it, an audience, or even just one other person. Previously I’d just been doing the performance alone and putting it on the Internet. People would comment on it positively, but if somebody hated it, they’re not necessarily going to tell you. Maybe I had an inkling that there’s somebody out there who might want to sit through it. But I guess generally when I make anything I’m never thinking about the audience’s perspective. I’m not thinking of it from the assumption that I have any control over how engaging it is to them. Because, in my mind, even if I try really hard to do that—while making a movie, a performance, anything—I didn’t know how people will respond anyway. I feel like it’s completely unreliable. That kind of pseudoscience of, “Oh I can do this and they’ll be scared! They’ll really like that! They’ll laugh!” I just don’t know. I don’t think anyone actually does. But I was surprised at how engaging it was. I would be interested to hear what you think, but it felt like people were very engaged throughout the entire thing.

Of course. A big part of why it works is the musical improvisation that’s going on at the same time—that really locks you into it in a way that you might otherwise not have been. What was the rig that you and your brother put together for the performance?

The setup is basically that he’s getting all the audio from the performance. He’s using Ableton, and he’s able to sample it, or just let it pass through, and effect it. He’s able to do anything he wants to with it. And then he has a keyboard setup to play on top of anything that’s coming through, and a drum machine, and a microphone. I also have a microphone, so he can effect anything I say, or mute it, or do whatever. There are also system functions on the computer, so that if I highlight some text, I can tell the computer to speak the words. And he’s getting that audio. In general, he’s making noise, and because of his ability, it’s going to be engaging. But we had never done this before. We “practiced it” for like four or five minutes beforehand…

Obviously you have a lot of random, uncontrollable aspects that are at play in any given performance—did you think about the overall sort of tone that you wanted the thing to take? Were there any parameters that you gave yourself going in, or was it more a matter of letting it take you where it takes you?

It definitely takes you where it takes you. I think if I set any parameters, it would sort of go against the central thesis of what the project is. After having done it, I see that it goes all over the map tonally, from the most disturbing images and sounds and stories to the most hilarious and the most empowering. It’s at once sort of everything, which I find… Well, actually, it’s not everything. I think that’s what I find to be distressing about it, but also what I find to be affecting about it, is that it’s the most extreme. The most extremely terrible thing that could happen to a black kid. And then it’s the smartest black kid they could find on the face of the earth. And then it’s the funniest, or the best-dancing black kid, or the most articulate. There’s a line in a Black Star song [“Thieves in the Night”] where Mos Def says, “I find it’s distressing, there’s never no in-between. We either niggas or Kings, we either bitches or Queens.” He said that in 1998, and I think in media it was relevant then, and I think it’s even more relevant now, I think the radicality or the extremity of representations is even more acute now, and then the desire to rail against that, to find the more nuanced images and characters within blackness, that energy is also kind of more acute in reaction to the extreme.

So, yeah, there are definitely no parameters, and I don’t have any expectation about entertaining anyone—but I do expect that it’s going to engage people, because I think the browser is such an intimate space that it’s a little bit like watching somebody in the bathroom. The engagement process becomes very personal. And whether you’ve wanted to or not, you’ve participated in Googling. You’ve participated in the space. So it was kind of like, “Am I a part of the data that’s going into this?” I must be. So in a very direct, explicit way I’m part of something that is about a thing that we all do every day, whether it’s going to the bathroom or Googling someone.

18 Black Girls / Boys Ages 1-18 Who Have Arrived at the Singularity and Are Thus Spiritual Machines: $X in an Edition of $97 Quadrillion

18 Black Girls / Boys Ages 1-18 Who Have Arrived at the Singularity and Are Thus Spiritual Machines: $X in an Edition of $97 Quadrillion

In a way it sort of reminded me of what you do in An Oversimplification of Her Beauty, where you’re not only engaging in self-interrogation and self-analysis but aligning a viewer with you during that intimate process, putting them into your shoes as you play around on the Internet, acting as a sort of transparent vessel. I noticed you didn’t speak out loud during the performance, like you were trying to neutralize your physical presence in the room.

You’re right, the projects are very aligned, especially with the rules I made for Oversimplification. You never see me talking in the movie. There’s a sort of desire to take down the barriers that are normally up in the sharing of a piece of media that make it a voyeuristic experience. Because I think if I’m talking, it’ll instantly be like, “Okay, now I’m watching Terence.” As opposed to, “I’m experiencing life with Terence—even if it is Terence’s life.” I rarely see that. Sometimes films do that, or art does that. Like I think it’s a lot of the reason why people connect to Moonlight. It disables your voyeuristic instinct to watch movies about people who you are not. Like, you’re probably not a gay poor black kid struggling with his sexuality in Miami. But somehow, the language of the movie is like, “Oh, shit, I guess I am?” Or… you’re just in it. It breaks down that relationship. Which isn’t always bad. It’s just the dynamic that movies have set up over time that engage subjects that are not part of the hegemonic majority or whatever. It’s like, you’re watching City of God, saying, “Look at how crazy shit is over there in Brazil! Fuck, this is crazy. That’s how it is over there.” You know what I mean?

And you’re trying to get that “over there” out of the way a little bit?

Yeah. It’s not “over there.” We’re here.

One thing I wanted to ask you about, which I think had to be somewhat unique to the performance I saw, was the direct-messaging session with Ta-Nehisi Coates—a conversational sidebar going on in dialogue with the browser material.

I won’t shy away from the idea that there’s some manipulation happening, but I wanted to create manipulation in service of interior experience. So in that sense, it’s like somebody called me while browsing, and I was on Skype. We obviously talk like that. I think that the multitasking element makes it more real.

Is there any sort of final version that you think this is going to arrive at?

No, definitely not. It’s “In an Edition of $97 Quadrillion,” which is a number that sort of feigns infinity. We roughly calculated it to be the amount that would have been paid to enslave Africans who made it over from the Middle Passage from just a few castles in Ghana. If they had worked minimum wage, 9 to 5, that’s what they would have yielded. Obviously that’s only a certain amount of people, and only if they worked 9 to 5, which just doesn’t happen Monday to Friday. It’s an absurd amount of money. There’s not even 97 quadrillion dollars on earth. I looked it up, and it’s actually way lower than you would think. I don’t know how accurate this is, but I remember reading that there’s only like 10 trillion dollars of cash. Everything else is assets. I thought the number was interesting because of the idea of a reparation being envisioned as, “Here’s the money we owe you—but that amount of money doesn’t even exist…” And it’s also interesting to quantify how much labor, how much wealth was created for free. All industries stand on the backs of that labor. Where we are technologically is built on the backs of that. I think that that number and the infinite charge, or burden, of payback is a part of the results. The condition of the kids in the portrait is explicitly wrapped up in money that’s owed.

I think that that’s why the project is something that should go on forever. Because, you know, anyone can do it. It’s not like I need to be around to be doing it. I mean, we could right now just write a program that does it automatically every year, or every few months, forever. Then generates the screenshot documentation of it, and it continually, like, “This is the state.” It’s kind of a metric. That would probably be the most appropriate way of it continuing. Because, also, at some point nobody is going to be using a browser or a screen. It’ll all be in your mind, or on your contact lens. It’ll just be different.

18 Black Girls / Boys Ages 1-18 Who Have Arrived at the Singularity and Are Thus Spiritual Machines: $X in an Edition of $97 Quadrillion

18 Black Girls / Boys Ages 1-18 Who Have Arrived at the Singularity and Are Thus Spiritual Machines: $X in an Edition of $97 Quadrillion

Waiting on that, what you are doing right now? You mentioned something about a TV project?

Yeah, I’m doing a TV pilot. It’s kind of about how ineffectual political satire is on television, and how irony in comedy and power, like political power, have yet to my knowledge yielded change or mobilized people in a substantive way. So it kind of lampoons the idea of lampooning, and then goes from there. That’s what the pilot is. After that, who knows? I mean, I have an idea, but I can’t necessarily predict… I’m also designing a game that I can’t really talk about yet, but it’s coming together. And just doing a lot of films. I’m producing some films. I’m writing features, trying to get my next one shot by the end of the year.

It’s interesting to hear the premise of this show, because it sort of struck me, particularly with the direct-message conversation that went on during the performance, that a large part of your latest project was making a politically engaged piece where you have the space to talk about the frustrating ineffectuality of making a politically engaged piece—and yet the compulsion at the same time to not be silent and sort of speak your truth, as it were.

Yeah. I mean, I think that there’s value in speaking your truth whether or not it changes anything. I personally have to constantly negotiate this, and evaluate where my energy should go based on what is most healthy for me, or most healthy for the world, or most pleasurable for me, or most pleasurable for the world. I use that negotiation process for every little thing, but especially in terms of, “What am I going to make now? Where am I going to put my energy?” Whereas I think that decision-making process for people who make Marvel movies is way simpler. It’s like, “Sounds like they want Spider-Man this year. That’s going to make some money. Let’s do that. Who’s cute? Who’s got a nice nose? Let’s put ’em in it!” It’s so, in a certain way, enviably clear. It doesn’t feel negotiated in any way. On the other side of the spectrum you maybe have Amy Goodman and other hardcore journalists who write things like, “No, we’ve got to get the truth out! Get the truth out! Do that, that’s it, because somebody’s got to do that!” I think when you’re between that, or when you’re on whatever part of the dynamic where art-making is, expressing yourself becomes slippery. All decisions have consequences that you don’t always know about.

Say I want to make something that lambasts the shit out of the Trump administration, you have to ask, “Okay, why?” Well, I just want people to know that they hate women—they voted for a fuckin’ guy that hates women. Well, don’t they know that? It’s like, “Yeah, but shit. I just feel like I’ve got to say it! I’ve got to be on the record on the right side of history.” Or you can be like, “I think that shit’s funny and I just like to laugh. Whatever, I just think he’s an idiot, and it’s funny to laugh at him.” The history of political satire all the way back to cartooning is to speak truth to power. In some way, they do what journalists do—to illuminate, in maybe a little bit more of an attractive way, the truth of the matter in order to mobilize people. But I think that we’re newly in a space where the political cartoon just doesn’t do that anymore. It just doesn’t mobilize anyone. It doesn’t matter. It’s funny or not but, you know, who cares?

Part of it I think is the economy of excess that’s part and parcel to life online, which in some ways is the subject matter of your piece. I thought about this a lot in the lead-up to the election where everybody was waiting for something to happen that would bring the whole Trump train to a halt. And something did happen, like a dozen times over, including the hot mic thing, but it seems like there’s no way for any single thing to cut through the noise in the way that, say, a Thomas Nast caricature of Boss Tweed could get penetration in 1875.

What do you do when your tools don’t have any use anymore? I think that’s the thing. We got really good at drawing that thing that works, that cuts through, and now it doesn’t work for its stated purpose. And we have all this skill and this space and this sort of art that doesn’t have a gallery anymore—or has a gallery, but it’s like people are going to see landscapes, and they’re like, “Oh, that’s a nice abstract!” Or whatever. I think that now is a good moment because it’s the death of something. Something else is going to come out. I’m just trying to figure that out. And to make a real decisive move into that next thing, and have a funeral for the last thing.

Nick Pinkerton is a regular contributor to Film Comment and a member of the New York Film Critics Circle.