Critical Connections in the Pod and Beyond: an Interview with Complex Movements

Complex Movements is a Detroit-based artist collective that includes Wesley Taylor, Waajeed, Invincible/ill, Carlos "L05" Garcia, and producer Sage Crump. Their current project, “Beware of the Dandelions,” debuted at the Allied Media Conference in 2013 and blends musical performance, art installation, interactive game play and community workshop components. In January 2015 they began a national tour of “Beware of the Dandelions” visiting Detroit, Seattle, Dallas, Washington DC, and Miami. They will return to Dallas for a second time this fall, November 20-22 and December 3-5 (see a full schedule of events), before ending the tour back home in Detroit in the spring of 2016.

We chatted with ill, Carlos and Wes about the project, how it’s evolved since 2013, and what they are planning for Dallas in November.

What is Complex Movements?

L05: Complex Movements is a Detroit-based artist collective that illuminates connections between complex science and social justice movements to support the transformation of communities. The inspiration behind forming the collective came from Grace Lee Boggs, and specifically a speech of hers that drew connections between social movement building and quantum physics. She drew on metaphors relating these complex science concepts of emergence to community building.

We began reading science journals, science fiction, and exploring how we could apply them to music, art, and community building. After researching and talking about these things amongst ourselves we wanted to turn those abstract discussions into application. That’s how we got started as a performance collective.

Beware of the Dandelions
Beware of the Dandelions preview in Detroit, October 2015

How did you get connected with Allied Media Projects?

Wes: Our connection to AMP goes back to the Allied Media Conference and Detroit Summer. ill was involved with Detroit Summer and met Jenny Lee (executive director of AMP) through that. We also knew Mike (COO of AMP) because we co-founded Emergence Media together.

ill: Our relationships with Mike and Jenny predate the AMC moving to Detroit in 2007. Our first official collaboration with AMP was in 2013 through the “Work in Progress” residency we did at the Charles H. Wright Museum. That was our first iteration of what we now call “Beware of the Dandelions.” Our residency was a month long and overlapped with AMC2013, where we debuted the project. Now we are a sponsored project of AMP.

What is Beware of the Dandelions?

Wes: Beware of the Dandelions is a performance / installation piece that unfolds inside a capsule room that we call the “pod” – built in collaboration with architect Aaron Jones. The audience experiences the story within the pod, while we perform outside of the pod and stream in audio and visuals of our performance. The audience members work with each other as participants in this experience. It’s a dystopian narrative that explores themes of technology and access framed within the setting of a corporatized apple orchard. Everything is custom-made for the space including the graphics, music and interactive components.

ill: There are three different modes to the project: performance, installation, and community workshops. In the installation mode we display “movement memory maps” which are real life stories collected from the communities we travel to. They are stories of triumph and contradiction and failure that show us the complexity of movements in locally rooted communities. We have been collecting stories from Detroit, Seattle and Dallas and those are uplifted during the installation mode.

L05: The third mode is the community workshop mode, where we take a lot of the concepts and themes that played out in the performances and movement memory maps, and we work with local communities to identify how that relates to what they are experiencing. We want to uplift the work going on in those communities.

ill: We usually begin developing a “community cohort” about six months to a year in advance of our visit to a city. This cohort helps us navigate the local landscape in each city and how our project could be most useful in that context. The cohort forms as a way to nurture relationships across issue areas and silos in each place. The cohort helps us identify what stories we want to collect and ensures the performance is accessible to all communities. Some of the workshops we do in communities are skill-share based, others are around breaking silos and connecting people to build movements in a more intersectional and complex way.

Beware of the Dandelions 2
Beware of the Dandelions preview in Detroit, October 2015

Why is it important to form these community relationships in advance of the performance?

ill: It’s integral to the work. The content of “Beware of the Dandelions” is about social justice movements and so the process should be about supporting social justice movements. Both the process and the product need to be rooted in social justice movements, otherwise the work would be disingenuous to us. Also, we have all experienced fatigue around how people come into Detroit, usually from the outside in, thinking they have all the solutions to our problems – even if it’s well intentioned. We think you can contribute meaningfully only if you take the time to build relationships. When we enter into other communities, we don’t want to perpetuate the way we see people enter Detroit.

How has Beware of the Dandelions evolved since its debut in 2013 at the AMC?

L05: The first time we installed the pod at the Wright Museum in Detroit in 2013 we called it a “work in progress.” It was a huge learning experience. It was the first time we did any type of interactive activity with the audience. It was an evolution of this concept of physically separating the performer/audience relationship, which we’ve experimented with before. Our performance takes place outside of the pod and it’s streamed inside the pod.

ill: We worked with a number of advisors over the past two years including filmmakers, screenwriters, and video game designers – we used that to develop the narrative.

L05: The music has also grown and changed dramatically. Only three of the original 19 songs are in the current set list. It’s been an intense writing process and as a result the visuals have also changed. It’s also very space-intensive and resource-intensive to put up such a large installation. We developed ways to experiment with the different visual components on a smaller version of the pod that allows us to continue evolving the work at scale.

During April of 2015 we were touring in Seattle for a month – that was the first time we had an installation mode where we displayed the movement memory maps. It was also where a lot of the community workshop components were developed.

ill: It’s a lot of evolution and we are constantly learning in the process. When we started we didn’t know much about theater and game design and film and animation – we are learning whole new mediums. It’s exciting but also a steep learning curve.

What’s new for the project in Dallas?

L05: Wes and I are continuing to develop the visual side of things. Since a lot of the music was rewritten between the first time in Detroit in 2013 and in Seattle, we are building and responding to that. ill and I are working on strengthening the interactive components of the experience.

ill: With the interactive aspect we think of the audience as participants. When they enter the pod they are called upon to uncover the narrative. They essentially “hack” the pod through these gamelike interactive components that involve them moving around and engaging with the space and each other. We are inventing a whole new way of doing performance – there’s not a lot of precedence around this type of multi-player, live-action game that combines narrative components. We also want the interactive component to go beyond the performance by encouraging participants to apply their experiences inside the pod to their community spaces as an organizers, artists, and activists.

Dallas is a very different community than Seattle. We are approaching it with that same level of intentionality. We have been working with a community cohort since last fall. It really is a long process of making sure we uplift the work already happening in these communities, in addition to sharing stories from where we’ve been.

How has the interactive component changed with the work?

Wes: As a hip-hop performer you engage with an audience and it’s definitely interactive, in a sense. But we are trying to do this in a way we are not accustomed to. The interactive component goes beyond what you might be used to when you go to a hip-hop show. We have to ask ourselves what is interacting at its most basic level? Is it us interacting with a crowd or the participants interacting with each other? We are exploring how to facilitate interaction in a way that is not your typical call-and-response in a hip-hop show or introductory icebreaker in a community workshop.

ill: We wanted to shake up the paradigm of spectator/spectacle and performer/audience by giving the audience agency in playing a role in this narrative. It’s important to us because it reflects how we make our work as a collective – moving away from the traditional hierarchies in the art and music industries that consist of a lead artist or lead singer. All of us have very specific strengths that we bring to the process, but we also need that creative synergy. And then we ask how that applies to movement building. Often there’s this traditional leadership hierarchy that is perpetuated in movement spaces. This project is a low risk space and a fun and engaging way to challenge those hierarchies and practice collective problem solving.

Read More

  • "Complex Movements' Beware of the Dandelions Opens in Dallas Presented by Ignite/Arts Dallas" in Emergence Media
  • "Complex Like That" in Theater Jones
  • "Complex Movements Is a Detroit Artist Collective That You Need to Know" in Complex Magazine
  • "Complex Movements’ Beware of the Dandelions" by Jeff Chang in Howl Round

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