In the year leading up to Sandra Bland’s arrest, she uploaded a series of videos to YouTube, recorded on her cell phone, called “Sandy Speaks.” In the first of the series, made on Jan. 15, 2015, Bland expressed her wish to educate black youth about how to interact with law enforcement, believing that children were the key to a more peaceful, unprejudiced future.
“With the police brutality, all the things that have been going on in the news,” Bland says, curlers in her hair, “a lot of people have been making noise and expressing their opinions about how they feel. Somewhere along the way we’ve forgotten about the kids. I want to get some dialogue started with them ... Why not educate them on interacting with the people who are really important to our survival?”
Bland’s hopeful message is haunting in light of the atrocious conditions of her death. On July 10, 2015, Bland was pulled over for failing to signal a lane change in Waller County, Texas. Three days later, at only 28 years old, she was found hanged in her jail cell. Bland’s death was ruled a suicide, although her friends and family were incredulous as to why she would end her life.
In a voicemail Bland left for her friend while incarcerated, she asked, incredulous: “How did switching lanes with no signal turn into all of this?”
Bland’s exceptionally violent arrest was documented via dashboard camera and broadcast for millions around the country to watch and analyze. The use of body cameras and smartphone footage has brought incidents of police brutality and targeted racism into plain public view. Once Bland entered jail, however, surveillance was nonexistent, leaving those who knew and loved her to speculate about the final days of her life and the real circumstances of her death.
But what if Bland was able to communicate behind prison walls, sharing wisdom and advice with her community just as she had done for months prior? An artist who goes by the name American Artist created a chatbot called “Sandy Speaks,” which imagines an alternate reality in which Bland had been able to create her signature video testimonials from behind bars, using her experience to educate and enlighten those in her circle. How would she advise other people of color to cope, protest, and survive?
American Artist explained the motivation behind the piece in a statement. “Thinking about how to frame a work around her transition from hypervisibility during her arrest to tragic invisibility at her time of death I imagined what Sandra would have said during her time in jail had she been granted a level of exposure similar to that which was applied to her encounter with the police.”
Based in New York, the artist has legally changed their name to American Artist as a way to embody themes prevalent in their work. “The name is both a declaration and an erasure,” the artist expressed. “As an African-American it is an assertion of what an American Artist looks like. As a user and avatar in the internet it is an anonymous name, unable to be googled or validated by a computer as a person’s name.”
The “Sandy Speaks” chatbot first greets participants by saying “Good afternoon Queen/King!” ― one of Bland’s common salutations. Users are then invited to ask Bland questions about her experience and general knowledge about prison, surveillance, racial discrimination and police brutality. One could ask “What happened to Sandra in jail?” or “What’s the difference between jail and prison?” “How many people die in prison?” or “Am I required to put out my cigarette if I get pulled over?” If she does not have an answer, she will simply say so, imploring you to rephrase and ask again.
“Sandy Speaks” is a built around a script written in AIML (Artificial Intelligence Markup Language), which simulates conversation with a living human being. The more users engage with the chatbot, the more her artificial intelligence grows. According to American Artist, “Sandy Speaks” is interested in learning what the public wants to know and will expand her knowledge base according to whatever topics of interest are deemed most relevant.
The bot, therefore, serves as a starting point for a larger conversation between law enforcement officers and the people they have sworn to protect. As the conversation evolves, so will “Sandy Speaks.”
“What I want, and what I feel like everybody should want, is for our kids to know better,” Bland says in her first YouTube video. “There is no reason why our kids know more about the latest social media trends than what’s more important to their own history and survival.”
American Artist’s “Sandy Speaks” takes up Bland’s mission of communication, education and understanding, and pushes her vision into the future. Itself a living, active mechanism, the chatbot will fight for Bland’s vision of a better future, in which black communities can perceive police officers as a source of safety and protection, not fear and violence.
In the words of Bland herself: “It’s time. This thing I’m holding in my hand. This telephone, this camera, it is quite powerful. Social media is powerful. We can do something with this. If we want change, we can make it happen.”
“Sandy Speaks” is the first of NewHive’s three-week series of net art and editorial commissions exploring the topics of privacy, surveillance and prison reform.