Complex Movements present Beware of the Dandelions
By Shelley Salant
Inside an old car mechanic shop in northeast Detroit sits a 400-square-foot polyhedron dome. It's the skeleton of "the pod," the setting for Detroit artist collective Complex Movements' multimedia project Beware of the Dandelions.
Conceived by longtime Detroit-based artists and activists, this wide-ranging project combines many elements including hip-hop, electronic music, video projections, community organizing, science fiction, theater, and interactive game elements. It functions as a performance, an art installation, and a space for community workshops.
October marks the ambitious project's homecoming after residencies in Seattle and Dallas. It's taking place in Complex Movements' new permanent home Talking Dolls, which they share with an artist collective of the same name. Twenty performances, four installation viewings, and 10 community events will occur over the course of the month.
Sound like a lot? It is, but we'll start at the beginning.
The project began when longtime collaborators producer Waajeed and emcee/activist Invincible aka ill Weaver began working on a joint album after the release of Invincible's Shapeshifters in 2008. "We started making music together, and we came up with this concept behind it, inspired by some of Grace Lee Boggs' ideas, metaphors, and science, and social justice movements," says Weaver, who worked closely with the late Detroit activist and philosopher.
But after two decades of performing and releasing hip-hop, they were ready to try something different.
"I think it all started over ..." Weaver says.
Waajeed continues: " ... us being frustrated.
"We wanted to have a show that was just not so fuckin' hip-hop. Like straight ahead, DJ, rapper."
Weaver says the duo wanted to try something new.
"We decided instead of just making it an album, we wanted it to be more of a hybrid music and visual art collaboration."
They presented the idea to multidisciplinary artist Wesley Taylor, who they had known for many years since his days in the Ann Arbor hip-hop collective Athletic Mic League. The three set to work developing the concept, and began working with the collective's other lead artists L05 and Sage Crump in 2012.
First they built a 1-foot-tall interactive music box that played their song "Apple Orchards," and then an 8-foot tall music box, which they presented and won an award for at ArtPrize in Grand Rapids in 2013.
"With that performance, we started the idea of separating the audience from the performers, and the audience being enclosed and unlocking the music by interacting with each other," Weaver says. "Instead of you listening to a music box, or triggering a music box, what if you were inside a music box? That became this pod."
During the performances, the audience is inside the pod and experiences the show as generative designs are projected onto its surface.
The pod's first installation was at a work-in-progress monthlong residency at the Charles H. Wright Museum of African-American History in 2013. "It was a way for us to basically just experiment with these ideas," Weaver says. "We feel like we've invented a whole new medium, this hybrid of performance and installation, and a lot of different elements that are interactive."
Each member of the collective has many roles in the project, but the roles are more defined for the performance part, which runs 40 minutes. Weaver writes the lyrics and performs all 14 characters. Waajeed is the sound designer and music producer. Taylor and L05 create the visual content and design the performance system.
Crump, who is based in New Orleans but has family roots in Detroit, serves as the producer and cultural strategist. She has been the lead designer of their "movement-based touring model." Six months to a year before coming to each city, they form a cohort of local artists, activists, and community organizers with whom they work closely to help connect with each community and address its specific needs.
The collective says that since their residency at the Wright museum, 90 percent of the musical content and 100 percent of the visual content is completely different. They've learned to adapt each of the many elements to complement each other and diminish overstimulation.
"We realized that in any one medium you can't turn up to 11 all the time, because there's other parts," L05 says. "If you just had the visuals going, or just had the music going, that's one thing, but when you have everything surrounding you in 220 degrees ... "
"It's like fuckin' Times Square," Waajeed adds. "You gotta fall back."
"When we started, it was very much hip-hop," Taylor says. "Even though we wanted to get away from the MC/DJ grind, they were making music how they were used to performing. But we realized that doesn't work in this environment. It totally shifted the way lyrics were written, songs, things were EQ'ed, melodies, who we collaborated with, BPMs. Everything's shifted to be very unique to this thing."
The artists say the cornerstone for the project is the first song recorded for it by Waajeed and Invincible, "Apple Orchards." After all these years, it's the only one from the original batch of songs remaining in the show, and the only one that has been available to the public until now.
"It's inspired all of these ideas — at its core, it's the entire story of Beware of the Dandelions summarized in one song," L05 says. "Everything else has germinated from that and grown into these different things."
So what is that core story? "In the story world, which takes place in the 25th century, in Detroit, the audience is basically the descendants of the dandelion revolution, or the townspeople," Weaver says. "They're going through rites of passage where they learn about the history of their ancestors of the dandelion revolution, of what occurred in the 24th century. So in order to unlock the story inside the pod, they have to work together collectively with different sensors and with different collaborative processes, to unlock each phase of this science fiction parable."
"The science fiction is based on current events in Detroit and the people who have influenced the show," Taylor says. "Some of the characters in the story are composites of people that we know, some revolutionary figures, and also events such as water shutoffs, displacement, co-opting of movements and things like that. Things that happen in Detroit are projected into the future."
"It's rooted in this concept of visionary fiction and inspired a lot by pretty brilliant writers and philosophers, people locally [such as] adrienne marie brown, reading Octavia Butler, and a collection of authors and philosophers, and using those as tools to be able to express a lot of the ideas and concepts we've been talking about," L05 says. "It's about using storytelling to convey different movement ideas. In the fictional world we're talking about a lot of the things that the people of Detroit are living through, and on a larger scale the world is dealing with. Water is something that is a global issue. It's very local in the way it's happening in Detroit, but it's also happening everywhere else."
"Charity Hicks, who was one of the founders of the water movement in Detroit, was killed in 2014, while we were building the piece," Weaver says. "She was already one of the people we were drawing inspiration from, but she joined the ancestors and became a very central figure in our creative process, as a way to channel our grief for her loss. Then another good friend of mine, who was a young organizer named Sheddy Rollins Sanchez, also was killed in 2014 while we were making the piece. A couple months after them Grace went into hospice. So it was a way to honor them. It was going through a process of getting really connected to their legacies, but also other people who are ancestors to us, who we wanted to honor through our creative process, including both artists and organizers. There is a long list of people. In some ways the project is like a spiritual healing process for us and for a lot of people who have attended it. It's an artistically innovative and imaginative piece, but there's this foundation to it that's about honoring our ancestors and about learning from the past and imagining the future to impact change in the present."
"We think about a lot of principles in our approach," Taylor says. "There are building blocks, based on activist philosophies, that are grounded in science and/or science fiction; some we grabbed out of speeches." The collective calls these building blocks their six "emblems."
"There's wave particle duality, which looks at valuing uncertainty and doubt which is a very big part of our work and also moving beyond false binaries," Weaver says.
"[There's] the dandelion, which represents the concept of decentralized networks and resilience. There's a lot of unknown things about dandelions, like the fact that they have a lot of healing properties but are often referred to as a weed," L05 says. "There's the starling murmuration, which is a flock of birds — the whole idea of collective leadership. There are many leaders. Everyone is a leader and a follower."
"Even to downplay single charismatic leadership of movements that usually end when the leader ends," Taylor says. "Or the idea that even if they're not assassinated in extreme cases, they burnt out, because so much is expected of them and put on them."
"How do we build movements where there are many leaders?" L05 says.
"[There's] mycelium, which is basically the fungal networks that are underneath the ground, [that] represent this idea of interconnectedness, [and] also great natural healing organisms for the earth," L05 says. "The fern is the idea of scale — each of the leaves is actually a smaller version of the larger plant. And finally the ant, which really embodies this whole idea of cooperative economics and cooperative work. A group of ants works together and each plays a role to move things larger than themselves.
"Pretty much all of those things are based on our studies of complex sciences, emergence, drawing parallels mostly metaphorically and abstractly, between these scientific principles and social movement building. And also sonically, visually, performatively, they've informed pretty much every aspect of the way that we have been approaching everything that we've been working on."
"The fern is scale [and] in our creative process, scale plays a really big role," Weaver says. "If you look at permaculture, it's really important you do things on an appropriate scale. None of us are gardeners, but those are still really important principles to apply to any type of design process. [It] relates to some of Grace's ideas that inspired this project. She talked a lot about how when people look at revolutionary movements, or just social justice movements as a whole, they have this prescriptive idea of them as mass rallies, or as many people as possible under a single slogan. In some ways [that] has a lot of impact, and it's not knocking that approach, but she said that the thing that was missing from a lot of that approach was that people were missing out on these really small-scale projects that were very deeply rooted and contextual to their communities, and those small-scale projects when interconnected to each other had an opportunity to create deeper and even more long lasting shifts. Things that sustain us are those everyday projects and community relationships."
"The way we talk about it is, we go an inch wide and a mile deep. As opposed to a mile wide and an inch deep," Weaver says. "[And] those inch wide and mile deep approaches all connect to each other. So each of us, the way that we work for change, it might be something that's not quantifiable. There are only 35 people per performance, and things of that nature. We're more about that depth of impact, not just on the small scale, but also the connections across those small scale things."
The "installation mode" of the project focuses on what the collective calls "movement memory maps" made up of the personal stories of activists and community members in Detroit, Dallas, and Seattle collected over the past several years. "That content has been evolving with each day as well, [and] has been heavily influenced by interacting with [those] communities," L05 says. "Those are coming together in a way that allows those stories to be shared between the different cities and communities. 'Translocally' is the word we use."
The "community workshop mode" differs from city to city, but generally consists of a series of events that allow community members to connect with and learn from each other, which are curated by the each city's local cohort. "That's entirely shaped by the needs of that community," L05 says.
"Each city is completely unique," Weaver says. "In both cities there's a ton of examples. In Seattle, one of the greatest takeaways was that we were able to support relationship building between an organization there called EPIC or Ending the Prison Industrial Complex, and Got Green, which is a people of color-led environmental justice and labor rights organization. We were able to support them collaborating more intentionally because EPIC is part of a campaign to stop the building of a new youth jail in Seattle, and they found out that that jail was gonna be built on a toxic waste site, so they found a way to collaborate more intentionally. We were able to work with them to coordinate both a public event and a strategy session. And now they work together more, which is not our doing, but we were able to support that process."
"In Dallas, one of the most exciting things that happened was we were able to support an organization locally called Mothers Against Police Brutality, to do a fundraiser for their organizing that featured local Dallas artists," Weaver says. "But even more importantly we were able to bring together local artists and organizers from all over Dallas, from the Native community, from the Latinx community, from different parts of the city, to meet with some of the families whose family members lives have been stolen by Dallas-area police, and they were able to share their stories with those artists and activists, who then turned around and created writing and other creative projects that were presented at the community event, [and] went on the become a network of artists and activists that work with Mothers Against Police Brutality. "
"Detroit, it's home," Weaver says. "So [for] our series of community events here, we organized a block party on my block, we're organizing a block party on Wes' block, we're working with community organizations we've been involved in for decades. A lot of us have worked with Detroit Summer, we're working with a lot of youth in the city. We're working with local folks around issues of emergency preparedness, and how to do everything from how to take care of your family around water, to how to resist displacement. There's a lot of things happening in our community series in Detroit, that luckily since this is home we'll be able to keep building on."
For the first time, the show's soundtrack will be available both digitally and as a vinyl EP jointly released by Waajeed's label Dirt Tech Reck and ill and Taylor's label Emergence Media. "This month of Detroit Beware of the Dandelions is basically a month long album release party, in addition to all the other functions of it," Weaver says.
The record covers will be screen-printed by the collective inside their studio space, and the records will be pressed just a block away at Archer Record Pressing.
"In the same way that we're out here printing our own record covers and putting it out on our own labels, there's a very important reason why we're presenting [the show] here in this building," Weaver says. "For us, it's a big part of what we do to make sure that we're investing in community-led and -owned spaces, and things that will continue to reap benefits for our communities."
For years, the collective searched to find an appropriate space to stage their show that fit with both their production's physical needs and their principles. But after decades of releasing their own records, getting their own space and presenting their show there was a logical trajectory.
"Why would I sign to a record label when I could put my own music out?" Weaver says. "Why would I go to a mainstream art venue when I could build my own art venue? It's gonna cost so much money to customize it to the needs of this particular engagement, why don't we find our own space?"
After being displaced from their original studio space around the corner, they moved into the Talking Dolls studio during what ill fondly remembers as "the dead of the polar vortex." While presenting Beware of the Dandelions in Dallas this past winter, the collective learned they were in danger of being displaced again — so they decided to collectively buy the building along with Talking Dolls.
"We're thinking about how to be really deeply rooted in this neighborhood, thinking about how to be part of the solution," Weaver says. "The ultimate critique is living the solution. We could sit here and critique gentrifiers and people coming in and displacing Detroiters, or the fact that Wes is in the art world and he'll attend an art event and be one of two black people in the room when we're the largest majority black city in the country. But why spend our energy focusing on that, when that time, energy and money could be spent on investing in the ultimate critique, which is creating our own parallel universes where our communities don't have to have those same experiences be as prevalent, cause they have more viable options for where they can develop and present work."
Performances of Complex Movements' Beware of the Dandelions run on select dates from Friday, Oct. 7-Sunday, Oct. 23 at various times (check website) at Talking Dolls; 7145 E. Davison St., Hamtramck; emergencemedia.org; Entrance is $10.