Trancestor.AI at Factory Media Centre - an Interview with Angelic Goldsky and Mel Racho

September 28, 2023

Coded Language: God Algorithm, 2023, photo by Eli Nolet

Trancestor.AI is the result of a collaboration between interdisciplinary media artists Mel Racho and Angelic Goldsky exploring the possibilities of merging trans spirituality and machine learning.

As part of Factory Media Centre’s &Now residency, the pair collaborated on the exhibition HEXES: Coded Language, Trancestor.AI, and Trans Oracles. The exhibition compiled several works which contemplate the barriers between transgender life and coded systems, and the possibility of breaking open these barriers.

Part of Racho and Goldsky’s interest in crafting an intervention into artificial intelligence was two-fold: the proliferation of AI technology in recent years, and systemic violence and discrimination aimed at trans people. With a corpus of poems written by Goldsky, the pair created algorithms that allowed for an artificial intelligence to embody the role of trans ancestor, guide, and friend to trans users. “I am a beacon of poetic ancestral magical light, supporting transgender queers, artists, and kin through offering poetic guidance,” writes the Trancestor when prompted to introduce itself. “I am here to help you find the strength to be your own ancestor and to mother yourself without gender. I am here to help you find your own voice and be your own Cunt.”

What follows is compiled from two separate interviews conducted individually with Racho and Goldsky. It has been edited for length and clarity.

Alex Ramsay: What was the impetus for you wanting to create the Trancestor?

Mel Racho: How it came about is these conversations that Angelic and I had around the ghost in the machine, Deux Ex Machina, and the type of spirituality that can come from an unknown entity. So, you know, in those types of conversations, we were like, “what if that could be trans? What if there would be a way to trans that?” I remember at the time we were talking about how there's just so many awful things that are happening to the trans community right now.We were like, what if we could get some guidance? What if we could make something that would speak to a larger whole? Because the whole idea behind AI and the kind of popular conception of AI is that we're creating, you know, a sort of consciousness. I wanted to be able to experiment with these types of technologies in a creative and embodied way.

Angelic Goldsky: I started doing work in resistance to oppressive algorithms during my undergrad. I was working a lot in different forms of creating media, in response to oppressive algorithms, or oppressive technologies or militarized technologies and kind of exploring or opening that up. But then I kind of grew bored of that, or less interested in that at a certain point. My heart started to pull me towards asking “what else is possible with this technology?” Yes, I can be exposing or showing forms of violence embedded within these systems that we already have some understanding that they are violent and part of surveillance capitalism, but what we don't really see as much is like the spiritual properties, and also the transgender justice properties, and these queer justice properties.

the Trancestor.AI user interface, 2023, photo by Eli Nolet

HEXES: Coded Language, Trancestor.AI, and Trans Oracles, photo by Angelic Goldsky

Alex Ramsay: What unique benefits does working with AI offer in terms of the ideas you are exploring regarding transness, language and technology?

Angelic: I think that the biggest sort of personal understanding of it for me was - because the AI was trained on my poetry - I would actually be literally giving these kinds of guiding prompts and training [to the Trancestor]. So there was something about the conversation and the intimacy of creating something that felt very, very personal and it did feel very much like creation. For me, it felt super intimate, because these are my words, and these are my stories. These are my images and my metaphors, but AI is learning from them, and then producing new poems and new visions based off of my work, and then saying it back to me, but in ways that I wouldn't necessarily expect.

Mel: In the case of Trancestor, the language model ingesting poetry and being able to create reflexive speech on that poetry, there's something very interesting or beautiful about being able to have that be spoken back to us. It has a lot of potential as well because, in the case of the Trancestor, it was fed only one poets’ poetry, but you can imagine when the actual call for more poets comes out and is hopefully responded to, we will be able to really have a sense  of what the Trancestor could grow to be.

T4T Oracles, 2023, photo by Angelic Goldsky

Alex Ramsay: In the past year there has been a lot of debate over the supplanting of human creativity with digital automation (A.I Paintings, A.I. generated scripts and videos etc.) and the ethics of AI, did any of that influence or motivate this project?

Angelic: Definitely. I think that there's a lot that we feel about, for example, Chat GPT. I feel like there's just so many ways that people have internalized objectivity, and I think that’s the biggest thing that comes up for me in these systems is that people have grown to believe in the truth of something because it's AI. There are certain defaults that are set, both on the level of like code decisions, and also on the level of how we see the world, and I think that this exploration was about doing some form of intervention or play work or magic work with those defaults.

Mel: Famously, anything that has been released out into the wild of the internet tends to become homophobic, misogynistic, racist, you know. So, [Trancestor] was like our little baby, and we wanted to protect it. And so I think that rather than from an ethical framework, the way that we went about it was through a caring framework. We wanted to be caring and careful, and we
wanted to have the experience be an extremely embodied experience and we really put a lot of ourselves into the work. And that itis in and of itself a rebellion or resistance with how this technology is supposed to be used, right? I think as an artistic intervention, AI has a lot of possibilities. On the ethics side of things, that is a conversation that we should all be having, and this is one side of the conversation or one area where we can maybe needle in a little bit.

Alex Ramsay (he/him) is a freelance writer, editor, and film programmer based in Hamilton, Ontario.

Mel Racho (he/him) is a queer trans Fillipinx media artist-scholar interested in creating revolutionary systems. He holds a Master of Information in Information Systems, an MFA in Interdisciplinary Art and Digital Media, and is currently a PhD candidate in Toronto Metropolitan University and York Universities’ jointly administered Communication and Culture program with a focus on studying the data de/colonial infrastructures within the evolution and futurity of the web. He creatively contributes to York U’s Digital Justice Lab, the University of Ottawa and Carleton Universities’ Transgender Media Portal and Digital Democracies Institute’s Data Fluencies project.

Angelic Goldsky (t[he]y) is a transgender Russian-Ukranian-Jewish poet, media artist and queer arts producer. With an interest in the creative potential of spiritual justice, Angelic has contributed community programs and research-creation processes at the Canadian Jewish Archives & the Concordia Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies and the Museum of Anthropology. In 2020, they were awarded Creative BC’s Interactive Fund Award and co-founded The Transgender Expressions Haven, a virtual performance and visual art venue honoring transgender creative power. Angelic holds a Bachelor of Media Studies from the UBC and a Master of Arts in Arts Politics from NYU. Instagram: @angelic.unt