Social practice art has gained momentum and recognition as a discipline in recent years. Artworks in this vein defy categorization, as they often combine elements of architecture, design, performance and audience interaction in their effort to create an active viewing experience—one that perhaps carries a message beyond the walls of the performance setting.
All this is the ambitious aim of Complex Movements, a Detroit-based art collective that seeks to combine complex science and social justice movements into an interactive performance space that reflects the needs, strengths and stories of a given community. The group has received support from Knight Foundation to develop its incredible touring art space, multimedia installation and organizing project, “Beware of the Dandelions,” and to take the experience on tour, with a series of shows, workshops and community events in Dallas and Seattle, to date. Fresh from the road, Complex Movements is hosting a series of sold-out performances out of its home base, the East Side Talking Dolls design studio, coordinated by parent organization, Emergence Media.
Those lucky enough to score tickets to one of the shows are in for an intense, multi-sensory event, for the Complex Movement crew has an incredibly diverse skill set. Emergence Media co-founder Invincible/ill Weaver (who prefers the pronoun "they") is known citywide for their rapid-fire hip-hop stylings. Invincible spits stories of social discord, love and loss, rage and rebellion, and memory and healing, in staccato bursts of language that are lyrical and intensely heartfelt by both performer and audience. Emergence Media co-founder Wesley Taylor (also co-founder and owner of Talking Dolls) is a graphic designer, fine artist and musician. L05 (also known as Carlos Garcia) is a multimedia artist and performance systems architect. Wajeed is a music producer, sound designer and filmmaker. All of these talents were coordinated into the “Beware of the Dandelions” performance module by producer and cultural strategist Sage Crump, who directed the show.
What a feat of performing, directing and social movement organization it has been! The audience, after being carefully prepped and vetted for the experience, is ushered into a 400-square-foot, in-the-round performance “pod”—a modified polyhedron dome, and equipped with three large projection screens, a surveillance camera, and a lighting grid running colorful LEDs in patterns. Over the next 90 minutes or so, the performance unfolds, combining animated videos that mimic the aesthetics of first-person video games with a score by Wajeed that provides the foundation for astonishing vocal stylings by Invincible. But for a few interjections by other collective members, Invincible holds up the entire performance, playing multiple roles in the narrative using voice augmenting equipment—a performance that would be impressive enough on its own, but takes a turn for the astonishing when, at the end of the show, you realize they have done the entire performance live and in real time. Additional parts of the music and soundscape are performed live, and then there are both pre-rendered and real-time-generated visuals—the audience is required to stand and participate throughout the performance, called upon to execute physical tasks as a group, which unlock a combination of six “emblems” during the course of the show.
These emblems demonstrate the incredible research, innovation and thoughtfulness of the Complex Movements process. Each emblem is based on constructs within natural or physical science that are used as metaphors for community organizing and social justice movement-building. In the context of the performance, they allow and encourage the participants to embody some of the values of those metaphors. For example, the emblem of Ant Society, which operates as a metaphor for thinking about cooperative work and economics and shared resources; during the performance, this emblem is activated by the group’s ability to collectively develop and join in with a pattern of handclaps. It is necessary for the group to unlock a given challenge before the next phase of the story unfolds.
“That is a conversation, as it often is within movement spaces, around resources, and how do we figure out how to share resources to support the work that you do,” said Crump. “That can become a conversation in the community, if that’s what they’re interested in, and we support that, sometimes in workshops, sometimes in strategy sessions. So we come with this framework, and different emblems get highlighted, based upon what the community feels like they are gravitating toward.”
“These are fundamental to how we organize ourselves as an art collective, they’re fundamental to the story world of 'Beware of the Dandelions,' and they’re fundamental to the installation and the workshop mode,” said Weaver. The other emblems are: Wavicle—wave-particle duality that looks at moving beyond binaries, valuing uncertainty and doubt; Starling Murmuration (the synchronized patterns created by flocks of birds in the sky)—thinking about how collective decision-making and collective leadership occurs and is adapted to by the group; Fern—which looks at scale by way of fractals, identifying core values and being able to apply them at every scale of the work; Mycelium (the underground root structure of fungus which actually functions as a single, huge, highly communicative organism)—which deals with interconnectedness and detoxification; and Dandelion—a very multi-layered emblem, which looks at strong movements based in both the decentralized nature of seeds, but deeply connected taproots that make it hard to displace.
“Dandelion is about regeneration, and thinking about how we pass those seeds as ideas that can cross-pollinate—and that’s kind of the call to action for the townspeople in the Dandelion Revolution, within the story world,” Invincible said. The story itself is a science fiction journey that casts participants as embodying the townspeople in a futuristic town that is a “planetation” for genetically modified apples. Through song, history imparted through “memory maps” from ancestors, and interactive episodes, the audience is ushered through a telling of the 24th-Century Dandelion Revolution. There are certain recognizable visual elements, such as an homage the water tower by the Davison/I-75 intersection, that once bore the phrase “FREE THE WATER” (the artists responsible for this act faced legal consequences), and certain recognizable issues—such as the continuing scourge of water shutoffs that increasingly impact the most vulnerable among Detroit residents. As with the best science fiction, “Beware of the Dandelions” offers a fictional distance from which we may consider the issues of the present.
“There is a lot of world-building that happened when creating this project,” said Garcia, “and that idea of living through the story somewhat is something that permeates throughout the experience.” Ultimately, the performance is a powerful and unifying experience, but it is only one arm of programming pursued by Complex Movements in connection with the project.
“There are three distinct but interrelated ways that the project operates,” said Garcia. “Performance mode is a two-hour long performance-based installation. The second mode is installation mode, and where performance mode kind of tells the stories in a fictional sense, installation mode tells them through real life stories from different community members, from the communities with which we’ve worked.” It is worth noting that the “Beware of the Dandelions” team page reveals the community roots in all of Complex Movements efforts, with a catalogue of advisors, contributors, and partner and community organizations in each of their host cities.
“Essentially these community members are sharing movement-building experiences, and how it affected the community,” said Garcia. “When people step into the installation mode, they’re essentially wrapped in these stories, visually and sonically. That has been a way for us to crosspollinate storytelling between the different communities we’ve been working with, and to really shape the content of “Beware of the Dandelions” with each city that we go to and with each community that we develop partnerships with.”
“It carries over to each city, so in each city we share stories [in installation mode] from the cities that we’ve gone to thus far,” added Weaver. “On Saturdays in Detroit, people will experience stories from Detroit, from Dallas, and from Seattle. It’s a way for people to learn about these hyper-local movement building efforts across communities that wouldn’t normally be told by local media, let alone by national media.”
“Calling it a touring art space and organizing project allows to foreground that we hope this work has on local organizing and movement building,” said Crump, “as much as it foregrounds the experience that we hope that people have with the work.”
Community workshop mode is different from the other two, in terms of being less based in forms of storytelling. Before the performance space comes to town, and throughout the time that the group interacts with their host community, they host a series of workshops that are developed in partnership with the community cohort for that city. It’s an effort to identify, uplift and acknowledge the work that is already happening and figure out what are the expressed needs of the people within them. This enables Complex Movements to attempt to tailor “Beware of the Dandelions” to best serve those needs when it comes.
Complex Movements has not only put together an incredibly powerful exhibition and ongoing social practice work; they are blazing a pathway toward a new model for art and its ability to reach and impact communities. This project, with its many vectors of impact, marks a triumph and payoff of an extended and thoughtful process for all involved parties.