Dallas — Intellectualism. Activism. Physics. Hip-hop. If this word group appears incongruous, if one of these terms seems less like the other, then one probably is not familiar with the artists in Complex Movements. Put that on your To Do list because they are among the most refreshingly bright and creative young agents for progress in the country.
Complex Movements is a Detroit-based artist collective that employs multimedia interactive performance work as a means of facilitating connections that have the potential to transform communities. This collective of artists includes Invincible (hip-hop lyricist/activist), Wesley Taylor (graphic designer/fine artist), Waajeed (music producer/filmmaker), and Carlos "L05" Garcia (multimedia artist/performance systems architect). Working with producer and cultural strategist Sage Crump, these artists explore the connections of complex science and social justice movements.
In February 2015, the SMU Meadows School of the Arts announced Complex Movements as a recipient of their annual arts prize, which includes a residency and a $25,000 stipend. The expectation is that recipients will interact substantively with Meadows students as well as participating and collaborating arts organizations, and to leave a lasting legacy such as a work of art or an experience in Dallas that remains in the community. In satisfaction of these requirements, the Complex Movements collective facilitated a one-week collaboration with the Dallas community and the Meadows School in residency. They have now returned to present their program, Beware of the Dandelions, during a four-week engagement that opens Nov. 19 in the Tower Building at Fair Park. Beware of the Dandelions was created in collaboration with Detroit-based architect Aaron Jones and a circle of community advisers.
Beware of the Dandelions is an original science-fiction story, a parable, about a post-apocalyptic community that is trying to create change. It is also part of a new SMU-led initiative called Ignite Arts Dallas, spearheaded by Clyde Valentín, in an effort to bring artists and performances into the Southern sector and other communities of Dallas, and not just on the school’s University Park campus. This performance is free, but reservations are required.
TheaterJones sat down for an interview with three members of the collective: Sage, ill (who prefers the lower case name spelling), and Waajeed. What ensued was a fascinating and intellectually stimulating conversation, one that clearly demonstrated how and why these artists continue to receive national recognition individually and collectively.
TheaterJones: In regards to the title of the piece, why did you select science fiction as the genre for your story/parable?
Complex Movements: We are fans of Octavia E. Butler and lovers of science fiction. We love all of the significant African-American authors, the works by people of color, particularly those that are speaking to contemporary social issues.
Science fiction is connected to the lives people are currently living. Even though it feels like it is very outside of, there is always the thread of what’s going on with people’s daily lives. I think about a quote from Walidah Imarisha, who is one of the co-editors of Octavia’s Brood, who says “All organizing is science fiction.” We are currently living in a time that our ancestors imagined, so how then are we becoming them who imagines what happens next?
Organizing for something different than what currently exists requires that kind of imagination that science fiction calls on us to bring; to not see the current status quo as inevitable but to see it as something that transforms, that stretches.
Why did you select the dandelion as a metaphor?
There are three layers to it. First, the dandelion is societally viewed as a weed, something that is to be weeded out and thrown away, killed with pesticides. In reality the dandelion has a lot of healing properties. The root is something that can detoxify your blood. It is edible, and has a lot of healing and medicinal properties. That is a powerful metaphor for how a lot of our communities are treated, as disposable versus all of the healing properties that they hold.
Secondly, consider the ways the dandelion seeds are dispersed. As children we would blow the seeds and make a wish. But more importantly there is this idea of decentralized movements—how do we spread these seeds in decentralized ways? You can’t stop a dandelion from spreading all over a field the way you might stop a single Trojan horse that was trying to ram through a door. When you have that decentralized approach, it’s less something that can just be stopped in a single move.
When we’re approached and are working for change in our communities, we think of all of those metaphors applicable to how to work for change in our communities of Detroit, New Orleans and each community that we travel to. Here in Dallas, for example, we have been working with local grassroots activists and artists who are thinking about social justice, and applying those metaphors from Dandelions.
But also we have a whole symbology in our piece that we call emblems. Those emblems are all metaphors from science or complex science in particular. We apply those complex science metaphors to social justice movements and to how change happens and beyond. We identify the activists. Each of those symbols or emblems as we call them has that multilayered meaning the same way dandelion does.
In the science fiction parable dandelions become a symbol of the people’s revolution and Beware of the Dandelions is their call to action. Beware of the Dandelions in the story world is the townspeople’s call to action.
Why did you decide to place the story in a post-apocalyptic community?
Many of us are already living in a post-apocalyptic community. It is not such a far cry from the world we live in; it isn’t hard to understand. It’s not a stretch, but a stretch just far enough to be able to imagine those spaces and not feel the same way as if you were placed within the name of your own city, in the same block, in the same way. So it becomes a space in the imagination that has applicable solutions.
Colonization and Columbus, mass enslavements, genocide—those are all apocalypses that have happened and are continuing to happen.
In Detroit specifically, a lot of people look at Detroit as a post-apocalyptic place. They place Detroit in that framework in a superficial way, but we like to dive deeper into that context and reclaim those narratives. People place Detroit in that narrative almost in a way that it is out of a horror movie but minus the context. We like to add the context to it.
Yes, Detroit looks the way it looks with all of the abandoned buildings because of 15 plus years of white flight and racist divestments, unspoken embargoes on the city. People refused to support Detroit as it became a majority black city with a black political power structure so now that’s being undermined and destroyed. These are all of the contextual things happening locally in our city and similarly in New Orleans that we have embedded in our work.
What’s still possible? With respect to Detroit, the idea of ruins as if there is no life there, as if there is no brilliance there. There are people that are still living, loving, making things together, creating their world for themselves. That’s still happening within the space of when the large power structures and the state ignore you. We are saying there’s still so much life inside Detroit. It’s not a blank slate.
Do you see yourselves through this work as being a part of redefining or reshaping what activism is today?
Yes. As artists we don’t have a choice other than to say something. It is our responsibility, as Detroiters, and as people who see what’s happening. We have to say something and be active in shaping people’s ideas about who we are.
How has your interaction with the Dallas community informed your overall work? What have you learned about Dallas?
One of the things we appreciate about this project is how layered it is. In the midst of talking about getting to the real stories of a place and what is happening there, we had no idea of Dallas until this project. It has been amazing to learn about the history of activism in Dallas and to establish connections with people.
As we talk about connections across time and space, these decentralizations, the opportunity to hear what people have done and what they have learned, a hallmark is how we learn the stories and then share them across the communities. We learned about connections that we never knew that existed between people in Dallas and people in Detroit.
A great example is with the Movement for Black Lives that is happening currently. There was a gathering last summer in Ohio that was called the Movement for Black Lives Gathering. We have a local Dallas cohort that we have been working with for two years. For two years we worked with eight community members plus the Ignite Arts Dallas project to develop the month long series of programming.
At that gathering in Ohio, members from our community in Detroit met members of our local Dallas cohort, and were exchanging stories there. The stories they exchanged led some of our community members in Detroit to come back to Dallas and be transformed by some of those stories. Specifically, some of the conversations dealt with how to address questions around homophobia and transphobia within the Movement for Black Lives and how those can be uplifted as issues. We had members of the Detroit community come back transformed by conversations they had with members of the Dallas community that are part of our cohort. It was amazing to see those ripples coming up. Those stories parallel each other in a lot of ways. Generational stories.
What does the pod offer as a movement space that is critical to your work?
The pod is a semihemipolydodecaedron. That’s the shape of it.
When you’re inside the pod, you and the people you are with are surrounded by the images, stories, sounds of the parable. It transports you to the place and introduces you to the characters.
When you are in the pod you are surrounded by over 180 degrees of projections and animation that is both pre-rendered and generative. There is music all around you, a soundscape, and a narrator. There’s a room parallel to the pod in which the performers are performing live.
There are 35 participants inside the pod, engaged in the performance. There are different aspects of the experience where they are interacting with one another to unlock the next act. Those interactions are related to sound sensors and connect sensors.
There’s an opportunity for anyone who attends the performance, workshop or installation viewing to be able to learn about and engage with local community organizers in Dallas.
Has the interactivity presented any interesting challenges for you?
It’s been a great learning process. We have really pushed ourselves as artists in this process, in every way. All of us have had a really steep but exciting learning curve. A lot of this came out of a conversation we had early on, me (invincible ill weaver), Waajeed and Wes. Wajeed had said he was sick and tired of the way we had been performing. Especially as “hip-hop performers” which usually meant a DJ and an emcee and a standard setup. Our initial goal was to break all of the molds that pertained to hip-hop and the performing of hip-hop. That was the cornerstone to the journey that led us to where we are now.
That also led to separating the audience from the performers. Instead of us being on the stage and them being in the crowd, and doing call-and-response and other traditional hip-hop forms, we wanted to do something where the audience members become participants, part of the performance and we break up the paradigm of audience performer. The interactivity has pushed us to learn about game design and working with game designers. It’s constantly evolving. That aspect of the process has been iterative in really unique ways. We’ve been doing a lot of testing and experimenting with new game elements that we’re going to be premiering here this month.