An image from Dzata, Mozilla Creative Media Awardee

Mozilla Creative Media Awardee ‘Dzata’ mixes science fiction, speculative fiction, and fantasy to rethink how we approach innovation

(SOUTH AFRICA | MARCH 28, 2023) -- Innovation and technology are often viewed through a Western prism — one dominated by start-up culture, Silicon Valley jargon, and relentless progress at all costs.

But what if our understanding of technology, its origins, and its practices was viewed through a vastly different prism — one of African history, culture, and traditions? What if we understood technology not just as hardware and software, but as a historical process that Africans also shaped?

“Dzata: The Institute of Technological Consciousness” — a new creative research project by South Africa’s Lo-Def Film Factory and Russel Hlongwane — does just this. The project is created by South African artists Russel Hlongwane, Francois Knoetze and Amy Wilson and is a Mozilla Creative Media Awardee. Creative Media Awards fuel the people and projects on the front lines of the internet health movement, from activists to documentary filmmakers to researchers.

Through a stunning short film, rich website, and upcoming performances, “Dzata” tells the story of a fictional African institute and its archive of technologies. Embedding archival footage within game-engine and AI-built pixel landscapes, the experience creates a world where the history and future of technology is understood through local African contexts and practices.

For example, viewers are introduced to traveling scientists carrying backpacks which transform into complex laboratories, mixing the digital (motherboards and monitors) with the analogue (tools, traditional building techniques, spiritual practices). The project’s title also mixes the online and offline: “Dzata” is a nod to the artists’ aim to shift the image of “African data” in the technological imagination, but also references Dzata, the ancient capital of the Venda kingdom in South Africa.

Says Russel Hlongwane: “Dzata aims to foreground indigenous technological knowledge and to explore how science, technology and innovation are part of a long interlinked process of accumulative knowledge production which extends long into the past.”

Dzata aims to foreground indigenous technological knowledge.

Russel Hlongwane

In the coming months, Dzata will leap off the screen and onto the stage. A screening of the film will accompany a live-scored performance-lecture, delivered by the institute’s “Head Scientist,” Hlongwane. The first performance is slated for March 31 at the Control Shift event in Bristol, UK.

The project and its creators received mentorship from Clapperton Chakanetsa Mavhunga, Professor of Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and author of “What Do Science, Technology, and Innovation Mean from Africa?” as well as curator and critic of digital technologies in Africa, Oulimata Gueye.