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Narrative Sharing and Narrative Shifting with Digital Technology

As a Detroit-based artist collective, we work to support the transformation of communities by exploring the connections of complex science and social justice movements through multimedia interactive performance work.

Our seminal piece, Beware of the Dandelions (BotD), is a mobile art installation—both immersive and interactive—that invites communities to develop new strategies to create change. BotD features a science fiction parable told through live music and projections and is designed to support local social justice work happening in cities across the United States. Using an archive of social justice stories told in the first person, called Movement Memory Maps, we aim to combat one-dimensional narratives of social change. 

We are currently working with Detroit activist Siwatu-Salama Ra on a multimedia installation that combines writing, publication, print, sculpture, video, and sound, entitled Kites on Kites. The project, which, at its center, is about the dignity for incarcerated people and their families, supports prison abolition work. In the installation, Siwatu’s kites, which she had written on and sent from prison, are superimposed on box kites traditionally flown in the sky. We have also supported Detroit No New Jail Coalition with creative activities that shape the policy and strategies for their campaign. In June 2018, for the Detroit Juneteenth celebration, we facilitated a workshop in which attendees developed a plan to reallocate the funds that would be used to build the new jail.

an audience looking at large screen projections

Beware of the Dandelions. Photo by Doug Coombe.

In the following conversation, four members of the collective—Carlos (L05) Garcia, ill weaver, Wes Taylor, and Sage Crump—discuss how digital technology and performance can support community-based social justice organizing and transformation, the ways tech can inform process with collaborators, and how tech can create a platform for experimentation that has real-life implications.

L05: Digital technology offers an opportunity for multiple modes of storytelling, like narrative sharing and narrative shifting, which is really important to community building. It allows for various stories to be heard, felt, and seen.

Beware of the Dandelions is an illustration of the multifaceted ways digital technology can be manifested in performance. The Movement Memory Maps are communal, real-life examples of different generations and different geographic cultural and life experiences that people share with each other. Both in the real space, where we capture people’s stories of trying to make change in their communities, and in the performance space. And that set the tone. Not only for the piece as a whole as people experience it but for us making it. All of the stories and experiences people were sharing—and that we ourselves have had—made their way into the performance and influenced even the fictional parts we were writing.

Like, how do we use the characters? How do we use events that are happening narratively to reflect and represent and even expand and give more meaning to the concepts we’re challenged with while organizing?

ill: Why do you think technology is necessary to that?

L05: Technology is one of the things that offers us a way to operate nonlinearly, temporarily. It lets us capture things and play them back. It lets us depict things in ways that are either straightforward or are stylized and metaphorical. It allows us to have a single vocal performer embody multiple characters. Technology helps bring life to a whole world of people. That’s the kind of thing we hadn’t been able to do before in a traditional performance context—to multiply the number of characters we could embody in a number of stories, and the ways we can depict how people look on a screen or in a space.

Technology helps bring life to a whole world of people.

Sage: The digital space also offers an opportunity to practice organizing strategies and expand the imagination in a way that can feel really hard in real life. When you are working towards transformation, you feel the weight of that work, the weight of each decision. That makes imagining new ways of being harder. In a digital space or in an experience like Beware of the Dandelions, there’s an opportunity—without that weight of actual physical bodies on the line and the highness of the stakes—that digital performance work can create some space for imagination. The digital space offers a way for folks to practice and play and imagine so that they can try new things, which changes the way people think about change. It builds the imagination that leads to new strategies for real-life organizing.

L05: There is the potential for different kinds of collaborations in these emergent-style artistic creation processes in which the work iterates not only through the vision of the artists but also through the organizing needs of the community and our community partner’s vision. Whether it’s something like our Juneteenth event or being able to work with Siwatu again to design and create content.

audience members inside an enclosed transparent VR tent

Beware of the Dandelions. Photo by Doug Coombe.

Wes: Digital technology, performance, and transformation are really big words. When it comes down to it, we make work by pulling together some really big stuff, and the organizing and the performance overlap at times. I’m trying to think about the overlap as a Venn diagram that shows where it becomes effective.

I like the idea of simulation—using performance as a low-stakes way of bringing people together and then simulating organizing scenarios. People already organizing have been through many more higher-stakes situations within their own work. Digital technology lowers the stakes and brings other people in and in proximity with others. It’s within this space that differing ideas and concepts can be mediated.

ill: That’s a really clear way to put it.

Sage: There are so many ways to think about technology as a tool and the multiple ways we lean into that. One is around how we build local cohorts of organizers, artists, and activists to engage with our work. We are intentional about who we build with. We ask the question: Who is this digital technology performance space for?

Some season ticket holders and other folks wanted to make Beware of the Dandelions a spectacle of the skill and content of work without connecting it to the intention. It was a lesson on how to be thoughtful about peoples’ interest in the work and why, on how the artist should be strategic about who sees the work, and about the work’s ability to have the type of resonance or residue—stickiness—that we that we hope for during the creation of it.

ill: You’re talking about people being so fascinated with the form—the technology—but not necessarily with the actual goals or the content, right?

Sage: Yeah. They want to see it and then they want to go home thinking, Oh that was a really dope art piece. But we were rigorous around both the artistic process and product of it. It’s simultaneously built for transformation and community.

A big part of our work is the technology of relationship building and the technology of intentionally inviting folks we want to deepen relationships with.

Wes: I think when we’re talking about these forms we’ve gotten better at figuring some of this stuff out. But early on in the process of sharing new work, it’s about understanding when the work is doing the work and what the actual work is. An equivalent would be the conversation about the Kites on Kites piece with people in Philadelphia who were invested in organizing against incarceration and felt like the work was something they could relate to and potentially get something out of. If we had had random people in the room, it wouldn’t have been the same outcome. But we are really intentional about who’s in the room and how these conversations are facilitated.

ill: You just made me think of something really important. A big part of our work is reclaiming and reframing what technology is. So in the context of thinking about intentional invitations and who’s in the room, a big part of our work is the technology of relationship building and the technology of intentionally inviting folks we want to deepen relationships with through the process of experiencing the work together—interacting with it, co-creating aspects of it, or helping shape aspects of it. That’s one way we reclaim technology.

audience members looking at large screen projections

Beware of the Dandelions. Photo by Doug Coombe.

L05: One of the conversations that’s come up repeatedly for us is how to make sure we are not getting infatuated with technology for technology’s sake. We’re interested in the societally promoted view of technology as being high-tech, computer-related, digital, cutting-edge, but we’ve had conversations around reframing more broadly what technology is to include things like communication, language, and everything in between—from a performance aspect and how that relates to organizing and relationship building.

We’ve talked about technology specifically as a way of having some channels of interactivity or communication with participants. We’ve tried a lot of different approaches—like exploring body sensors and phones—and ultimately moved away from that because it didn’t reflect and embody the community-building concepts, principles, and values we wanted to uplift, either because it was too surveillance-heavy or it was not accessible resource-wise, or even because of the way it engaged with people. It wasn’t in line with the philosophical ideas behind the work we were doing.

It’s pretty telling that we went through all these iterations of interactive technologies only to come back to using games, the kind of games and interactive modes that are commonly used when doing workshops with people in a community setting.

ill: Essentially, based on games for actors and non-actors from Theatre of the Oppressed.

Sage: I’ve been thinking about the use of technology to increase touch—not necessarily physical touch but relationship and connection. I’ve also been thinking of the ways in which the interactive requires folks to work with each other but also to work across space, like how technology supports folks working translocally and sharing translocally within their organizing.

ill: Our collaboration with the No New Jail Coalition on Juneteenth last year allowed us to take a pretty simple art-making activity and develop a powerful visioning. We asked people how they envisioned a safe and just Detroit without police and prisons, and how they would redirect the half-a-billion dollars or more that’s being proposed to be spent towards this jail towards those visions. Instead of just having that as a conversation, we created an interactive performance on the spot, using technology. A quick stitching together of the audio and also animation. I think that piece has lived on as a really dope accompaniment to the prison abolition work locally in Detroit, and that there’s a lot more potential for it. I’m interested in us continuing to explore that kind of work.

I’m also thinking about the role technology played in our collaboration with Siwatu. Performance was less a part of that, but it is in the art and technology and movement-building Venn diagram. Technology allowed us to take something that was very 2D and re-approach it with Cinema 4D sketches. Being able to build on that concept as we continue to develop that work is an interesting way to collaborate between folks who are inside these systems under hyper-surveillance, political repression. We are able to amplify those ideas through the different technologies we’re bringing with our artistic practice.

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