Innovation can take on a multitude of forms. In a new venue in northeast Detroit, innovation looks like a 400-square-foot polyhedron pod in which you are invited to bear witness to the future history of a parallel world. Hidden from sight, a group of performers tell a sci-fi parable through video-mapped visuals and a soundtrack inspired by hip-hop and electronic music. At times, they ask the audience to interact with each other in order to reveal the next chapter of the story. It’s an entrancing experience, a music show that strives for more than entertainment; one that leaves you thinking about your place in the city and the communities that surround you.
Welcome to the world of Beware of the Dandelions, an interactive project created by Complex Movements, a collective of artists from Detroit that includes producer Waajeed, lyricist Invincible, visual artists L05 and Wesley Taylor, cultural strategist Sage Crump, and architect Aaron Jones. By combining performance, art installation, and community workshops inside a mobile unit, Complex Movements seek to raise awareness of socio-political issues through storytelling, with the goal of empowering communities by showcasing different ways to organize. Following a trial run at the Charles Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit in the summer of 2013, Beware travelled to Seattle and Dallas — holding shows and workshops — before returning to Detroit in October this year for a month-long program of events.
On the morning of one these homecoming shows, the members of Complex Movements sat in the Talking Dolls space they now occupy in Detroit to discuss the project’s evolution, the influence of techno legends Underground Resistance on their approach, and using science fiction to create new spaces in which art and community can grow in decentralized ways.
“We’re like the record in the store you don’t know where to put.” —Waajeed
L05: A lot of Beware of the Dandelions stems from wanting to rethink the paradigm of performance. How, typically, you go to a city for a night, hop on stage, have unidirectional interactions. Having done that for many years we wanted to try something different. We experimented with different physical objects for releasing music and also using technology to mediate the interaction between performer and participant. All this scaled up to the pod where you’re inside, experiencing the music wrapped around you. [Having a mobile structure for the show] came from rethinking what it means to travel to different spaces to do this work and not leave money on the floor after. So with a modular design we can bring a space with us, work iteratively, and grow it.
Sage Crump: One of the major themes [of the project] is no charismatic leader, no centralized authority. I think that’s why the separation [of performer and audience] and our interactions with the audience are important to the work.
Wesley Taylor: The pod structure was also dictated by the space we were in during our work in progress at the Charles Wright. We were put in this multi-purpose convention room so we decided to try and block the space from the audience, which led to a controlled environment; a smaller space inside a larger one.
Waajeed: In some ways also it’s almost like an Underground Resistance approach. This Mad Mike idea has seeped into what we’re doing where the projection of what we’re doing has more importance than us.
Invincible: Mad Mike is never in the picture or he’s wearing a mask in the picture. He’s a mentor and someone who’s laid a lot of foundations for us and other artists in the city. There’s a phrase a friend of ours said, “collectivity is our mask.” The equivalent to Mike’s mask is our collectivity, and the pod builds on that.
“It’s a different way to facilitate the change making we want to support. The science fiction parable told in the performance can spark radical imagination. The stories shared in the installation give people an opportunity to reflect on lessons from current and past movements. And the community organizing is where we practice those lessons. ” —Invincible
Taylor: The transmedia nature of the project was there from early on. It’s all designed, intentional ways of thinking about how information gets dosed out. There was a desire to also break the paradigm of how you enter and exit a city as an artist. We talk about movement building but how do we exemplify some of these things? How do we get more from going places? These are ideas we’ve been thinking about for a decade and they are woven into the piece and how it works.
L05: I feel it’s necessary to explore how to engage multiple senses and to really start thinking of work as multilayered. Figuring out how everything locks into place has been a learning process for us. In early iterations we would turn everything up to 11: music slamming, visuals slamming, the structure… It was very dense and a lesson in the value of negative space. Learning how to work collaboratively and iteratively and be like, “I love what you’re doing sonically here, I’m gonna pull back on the visuals,” or vice versa; Waajeed pulling drums out because it’s distracting from the feeling we’re trying to create. A lot of what’s in the narrative is affected by real world events. There are people who this work is heavily inspired by, such as Sheddy Rollins Sanchez, Grace Lee Boggs, Charity Hicks. All three transitioned and joined the ancestors during this work, so it’s also been a way to heal and process what their work and lives has meant to us and infusing that into all the different mediums we work with. The project is also a way for us to reflect on the city [of Detroit] as a whole, everything that’s being experienced on those different scales.
Invincible: The reason for multiple mediums is also to create a parallel universe for ourselves as artists, for how we present this work, and for the world we bring people into. It’s also a different way to facilitate the change making we want to support. So the science fiction parable told in the performance can spark radical imagination. The stories shared in the installation and movement memory maps give people an opportunity to reflect on lessons from current and past movements. And the community organizing is where we practice those lessons. There’s a water tower referenced in the performance, which is up the street. We collected stories from young Detroit artists who have been criminalized for writing “Free the Water” on the tower. And we help them fundraise and, when they’re in court, I’m there, working with them. That’s one example of the many issues reflected in the story and how they feed this parallel universe. And plus we function in a parallel universe as artists. This is an interdisciplinary super-hybrid that connects all these different mediums. Most spaces aren’t equipped for something that interconnected, so we have to build our own space.
Waajeed: We’re like the record in the store you don’t know where to put.
Taylor: We don’t care how your museum works, we’re not even making that work to fit into one of those departments. It’s not just being contrarian, but this is a vision so we’re not thinking about the room in the gallery it will fit in. It’s beyond those limitations. We have those conversations with museums: “We’ll get back to you later when we’ve restructured our format.” Cool, we’re going to keep making this piece.
Crump: It’s not just pushing ourselves but also pushing the field, places and spaces at the same time.
Invincible: And also pushing other peers of ours in the music community. We invite them to the show, show them there are other options out there.
Taylor: It’s the spirit of being in Detroit. I feel like making this piece in Detroit, it’s bringing some of that original creativity I saw coming up where people were breaking machines, doing weird stuff with equipment. It’s in the same spirit of innovation.
“Emergent networks are based on small scale interactions. Ants don’t talk to the ant way over there but to the one next to them.” —L05
Invincible: Supporting organizing to innovate too. That mix of understanding what’s possible and reclaiming older ways that have been erased, trying to push all those different forms we’re passionate about. The non-profit world is not that different from the music industry or the art world. They all put rigid constraints on people’s actual needs being met or actual visions being realized.
Crump: If we can crack those systems with our work then there’s room for other folks. Then the next person who comes along can find a way forward, too. It creates more opportunities for folks who are doing similar work that’s impacting communities locally. We work with an organization in Dallas called Mothers Against Police Brutality. Dallas is one of the capitals of police brutality in the country. They wanted to understand how to get local artists to write about local stories, not just the national stories of extrajudicial murders. We coordinated a strategy session with artists and family members who had lost someone and the artists created work based on the stories of their lives. A few days later we had a performance called Stolen Birthdays and shared the work back to the community. It was one of those moments of being able to connect folks locally, artistically, social justice-wise, and also share to the wider community the stories happening in their own back yards.
Invincible: I think there is a false notion of dialogue between parties that have extremely different privileges and power dynamics. There are expectations for those asymmetrical dynamics to exist on an equal plane of dialogue or conversation. I’m against that — it’s a notion that gets used to silence people who are on the receiving end of oppression. I don’t think it’s as simple as, “Let’s get a bunch of people who are displacing Detroiters and a bunch of Detroiters who are being displaced.”
Crump: Or cops to give out ice cream cones to parents of children who have been killed by police.
Invincible: Right. It’s not what should be happening. I don’t think it should be our goal. Within extreme ends of a spectrum there’s always this idea that you go after the opposite but your greatest chance of success is to work with those closer to you on the spectrum and try to bring them into a space where they can have conversations. There’s not even a consensus on my block about whether or not to call police when someone is having a problem. That’s a lifelong conversation that I’mma have with my neighbors on my very small block. It takes a lot of relationship building, a lot of conversations, but it also takes spaces like this pod. Even if people aren’t willing to have a conversation with each other they might be willing to be transported to an otherworldly, science fiction parallel universe in a pod-like spaceship. And that might allow them to imagine something other and hopefully start to read a book or have a conversation about something different than what their current views are. To expand possibilities. That’s a starting point.
Crump: Rather than work a mile wide and an inch deep, we’re working an inch wide and a mile deep, grounding things really deeply within that space. That’s where the most change can happen in the context of what we’re talking about.
Taylor: People talk about preaching to the choir. There’s not much preaching going on and even if the choir’s there, it helps it sing better.
Invincible: The choir needs to harmonize.
“Rather than work a mile wide and an inch deep, we’re working an inch wide and a mile deep. That’s where the most change can happen.” —Sage Crump
Taylor: That’s kinda what’s happening here. In Seattle, we performed this for an audience with a lot of privilege. Some were corporate heads and some were donors and season ticket holders of the institution. We would bring them into a confined room along with someone from a local organization working to prevent a new youth prison from being built. The energy was really weird doing that. It felt like an art piece in itself to me. They were stuck. We finessed and learnt. We tweaked the levels in the show but coming out of Seattle we had to tweak those community approaches too. I feel like we learnt who our audience is and how to facilitate dialogues more in line with what Invincible mentioned, to avoid those extreme dynamics.
L05: Emergent networks are based on small scale interactions. Ants don’t talk to the ant way over there but to the one next to them.
Waajeed: To be able to do what we love and share our vision with our community, from my own point of view is priceless. It feels great to be home, for a lot of reasons, mainly because we doing it in our own space. I was born close to here. For me this is an anti-downtown statement. I want to stick it up the ass of those folks in midtown. We don’t always have to go to them, I want them to come to us.
Invincible: The part that doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t feel gentrified yet.
Invincible: To me one of the goals is also to not allow this area to become gentrified.
Taylor: I always feel good that I come here and not downtown or midtown to do my thing. I’m in a whole different space, when people come here it’s a different mindset. Because we are artists here, the automatic assumption is that there’s an influx of artists to the area. It’s not true. It’s about the neighbors too, their awareness of us being here. That’s been a really organic thing, we’ve hidden in plain sight so we can grow as a practice but also not grow as art speculators. It’s about people in the neighborhood seeing we do t-shirts on the website and coming to us to help them make their own. They have to find us in a different way but once they come through they know they can come back. When people have artists communes or utopias or whatever, a whole lot of other problems start to happen that you don’t expect. I feel like bringing Complex Movements and the show into the fold of the space, it allows for the space and this area to grow in new ways.
Invincible: We collaborate with local organizations, have conversations with our neighbors, other groups that aren’t art-based. It’s about us being actual members of this community who happen to be artists and have that be one of the things we contribute to this area. There are a lot of threats posed to this area so it’s important for there to be spaces where people can come and gather, be themselves, be creative, be imaginative. Have a space to both resist those injustices but also be able to take a break from the injustices and commune with each other. Hopefully that’s what we, together with our community, can evolve the space become.
L05: It’s thinking about, as artists, as members of the community, how to intentionally place yourself in everything. It’s easy if you’re not thinking about those different dynamics to be complicit and validate certain things. It’s a constant part of the conversation. This is a place where we can all feel really good about it, in terms of our value system.
Crump: I think about this as an opportunity to simultaneously resist issues of displacement that we’ve faced as a collective, and also then create a space that has more opportunities and more resources and access for ourselves and others. Fighting against and envisioning at the same time.