“How do we build movements where there are many leaders?” wonders Carlos Garcia in a recent interview. That’s just one question at the heart of Beware of the Dandelions by the Detroit-based collective Complex Movements. The Creative Capital-supported project is a traveling, video installation pod which is activated through community and audience engagement, hip hop and science fiction narrative that mutates depending on where it’s performed. The collaboration started out of a conversation that stemmed from dissatisfaction that live hip hop was limited to the usual on-stage performance. The group—made up of Invincible/ill Weaver, Waajeed, Wes Taylor and Carlos Garcia—decided to explore social injustice they experience in Detroit and critical theory they were reading about through a multi-disciplinary project. Beware of the Dandelions has traveled to Seattle and Dallas, among other cities, but it premieres Oct 6-31 at Talking Dolls, as part of a “homecoming” to their native Detroit. An album by the same name is also available for sale. To get a better idea of what the project as a whole is, we caught up with the group.
Alex Teplitzky: Beware of the Dandelions places audience members in the middle of a science fictional dystopia. You’re from Detroit, a city I have read a lot about but have only visited quickly. To outsiders, the connection between reality and science fiction doesn’t seem far off. Is that a misguided judgment on my part?
Complex Movements: Many of the story elements of the science fiction parable Beware of the Dandelions are based on recent stranger-than-fiction events in our city and state, such as mass land grabs by billionaires speculating hundreds of acres of land under the guise of apple orchards (and tree farms), water being shutoff and poisoned, state of the art surveillance systems run by corporate moguls, and life extension seeking cryogenics facilities to name a few.
One of our project’s inspirations, (Detroit philosopher and activist) Grace Lee Boggs used to say “Detroit is what the country has to look forward to” partly because many of racist/colonial capitalism’s practices were piloted here, and subsequently, many of the community led strategies to address the crises created by those practices were also ingeniously created and innovated here.
Detroit is also a science fiction mecca including techno legends Underground Resistance and Drexciya, authors like adrienne maree brown and Saladin Ahmed, Ingrid Lafleur’s Afrotopia project, and beyond.
Alex: I’ve read that you started this project together after being frustrated with how traditional hip hop allowed limited forms of expression. Can you provide some of the context in which you created this multidisciplinary piece?
Complex Movements: Most of us met through hip-hop spaces, and some of us have collaborated for over a decade in that context, but it was important for us to push ourselves out of that comfort zone and evolve creatively in every way to meet the full potential of our vision.
Originally the collaboration was simply going to be an album based on the concepts of complex science and social movements, paired with some experimental visual art and design components—but it all changed when one day a few of us were meeting over tacos in Southwest Detroit and discussing how bored we were with the basic rapper/dj/band configurations we’d performed through in the past. That’s when we made the collective decision to cut ourselves off from those formulas, flip the relationship between performers and audience, and to build an immersive world that audience members can actively participate in. This interdisciplinary exploration sparked us to each learn new mediums—including science fiction narrative world-building, animation, game design, sound design, and most importantly how to cross pollinate those mediums.
Alex: When Beware of the Dandelions travels, you spend some time working with community members. Can you describe this process?
Complex Movements: Often outside artists enter Detroit as if it were a blank slate for them to paint their vision on top of, and think they can provide all their just-add-water solutions for our city’s complex problems. It is extremely important for us to counter that terrible trend, which is why one of the core values of our work is to support social justice movement building led by local communities at home and wherever we travel.
For that reason we designed this cultural organizing based touring model: in each community we partner with a local cohort of 8-10 artists, organizers, and community members across issues/identities/neighborhoods/sectors. We begin by working closely with a few initial contacts through our existing community organizing and arts/social justice networks, and ask them to help identify the rest of the team. We then collaborate with that cohort over the course of 16 months to 2 years through residencies, gatherings, and via satellite. Cohort members co-design events, workshops, share histories and local social conditions.
Alex: You’ve performed this piece several times all over the country. What have some of the most memorable encounters been for you?
Complex Movements: So far we’ve fully presented the project as part of a three city rolling-premiere in Seattle and Dallas, and are now presenting it back home in Detroit. In Dallas we worked with Mothers Against Police Brutality to host a creative strategy session where relatives of people murdered by Dallas area police shared their stories and artists created work prompted by those stories, which was an extremely transformative experience for everyone involved. In each city we hosted Story Seed Saving Sessions, where community members share rarely told stories of local movement building and changemaking.
As part of that process—in Seattle we heard a story from Mark, a formerly incarcerated organizer that created a prisoner rights newspaper while locked up, using blueberries, mirrors, and gelatin. Some of these stories are shared as Movement Memory Maps, which is the video installation mode of Beware of the Dandelions.
Alex: Emergence theory plays a big role in the background of the piece. Can you describe it, and your history with it? Do you see this technique working in national movements?
Complex Movements: Grace Lee Boggs sparked our exploration of science metaphors applied to movement building within the project, one of which is emergence theory. According to the Santa Fe Institute (where complexity theory was popularized by Western scientists) “Emergent behaviors are global-level attributes of systems that arise from the interactions of the components of the system, and that are not explainable by the behavior of individual components of the system or the sum of the components acting as individuals.”
This one episode of Nova was also a basic intro for us down this nerdery rabbit hole that led us to a long bibliography—but specifically this article by Deb Frieze and Meg Wheatley about the lifecycle of emergence was very formative in our thinking about how to apply this theory to artistic innovation and social justice movement building.
Early on in the development of the concept we hosted several workshops and a conversation series exploring many of these complexity science theories and their relevance to local organizing. We also had an opportunity to meet with scientists and science educators committed to social justice and discuss these ideas.
This is absolutely relevant to the way people are more frequently describing recent movements from Tunisia and Egypt to the Movement for Black Lives as decentralized, leaderless (we prefer the term leaderful), and cooperative. Even the US military and the right wing RAND think tank is interested in how networks rather than centralized bodies organize themselves. Yet most community led movements haven’t had the time or capacity as to fully reflect on the ways we already effectively apply this approach. Rather than a mile-wide and inch-deep we go an inch-wide and mile-deep—but all those inch-wide mile-deep locally-rooted projects weave mycelium-like networks and connections with each other to detoxify the toxic soil of the oppressive systems we live in.
Alex: Speaking of “leaderful,” each member of Complex Movements has their own individual career. How do you find time to work together on this collaboration?
Complex Movements: A ridiculous amount of sleep deprivation and caffeine at the worst of times, homecooked meals and collective creative retreats at the best of times.
Alex: Many Creative Capital projects have this really intensely multidisciplinary angle to them. Having benefited from the grant and our services, is there something specifically in the project that wouldn’t have been possible without it?
Complex Movements: Through Creative Capital we have been connected to a brilliant network of artists who are good people doing innovative and thought provoking work. That inspiration and mutual learning has been one of the greatest benefits of the process. We have also utilized many of the consultants and artist services, which supported us to make more informed decisions regarding so many aspects of our project.
Beware of the Dandelions opens with Allied Media and Talking Dolls in Detroit Oct 6-31, 2016. To read more about and purchase tickets to the performance, click here.