Complex Movements: Artists Put the Framework to Use

Posted by Complex Movements, Jul 28, 2017 0 comments

This post is part of our Excellence and Equity in Arts for Change blog salon.

We are Complex Movements, a Detroit-based artist collective supporting community transformation by exploring the connections of complex science and social justice movements through multimedia interactive performance work.

For the past seven years, we have been developing super-hybrid work that pushes us to seek new ways to define quality, integrity, and success. When Animating Democracy approached us about piloting the Aesthetic Perspectives framework, we were curious how it could help us look at our creative processes, our community organizing and engagement processes, and the intentional and unpredictable outcomes of this work.

Our most recent project, Beware of the Dandelions (BotD), functions in three modes: performance, installation, and workshop:

  • Performance, in which we channel stories from our community experiences through science fiction narrative that guides music, video projection, and interactive live performance;
  • Installation, in which we share local movement building stories across communities through an oral history video archive; and
  • Workshop, in which we partner with local organizers and artists in each city we travel to, intentionally curating a series of activities that support local cultural organizing and movement building.

To ensure that our work supports local organizing wherever we tour, we spend extended periods (one to three years) in advance in a city identifying and working with organizers, artists, and cultural workers, called the local cohort. The cohort helps us shape Beware of the Dandelions for their needs and visions. The cohort also informs the goals of the touring exchange, where and what activities occur, and invites members of the community to participate and experience Beware of the Dandelions.

Beware of the Dandelions. Photo by Doug Coombe.

After many years of development and touring, we wanted to understand and be able to talk about this work among ourselves and with others who are working similarly. Throughout the project, we tried developing surveys ourselves and with support from other people in the field. We got some useful feedback but most of it didn’t get to the heart of both the social justice and artistic goals of the work. Aesthetic Perspectives helped us do that.

We used the framework to do two things. First, we wanted to understand if our touring model and the Beware of the Dandelions art installation were supporting local movement building, and how. Second, as artists, we wanted to understand our collective artistic practice more deeply and how this work has shaped us and evolved over time. We needed ways to explore how well our creative practice intentions were being realized and where they needed to be strengthened and reconsidered. We realized that by looking at the framework, we could select aesthetic attributes that were important to us, review the definitions and questions posed, and shape them for our needs.

Beware of the Dandelions. Photo by Doug Coombe.

Beware of the Dandelions is dense work. As an immersive experience, there is an almost overwhelming amount of information coming at participants at one time. We wanted to understand if the message of Beware of the Dandelions was clearly transmitted within a work that is disconcerting auditorily, visually, and spatially. This fell in line with the framework’s attribute, coherence.

We asked our cohort: Now, having seen it, are there themes that run through BotD that, if you were talking to someone you’d say, “This work is kind of about this…” Here are a couple of message take-aways:

Cooperation is so hard. It means that people need to be reflective about themselves, and who they are and their real desires. It is the real work of the movement. —Detroit cohort member

The message of BoTD is a story about organizing in a futuristic wifi world that could very well be where we are headed. It’s the message of like-minded activists taking the risk against all odds. It’s a warning sign of what could come. This message means a lot to the organizing work I do to find sustainable organizing for a better life. —Detroit cohort member

Rather than doing a survey, we gathered cohort members on a video conference call to talk through questions collectively, recorded the conversation, and transcribed the conversation. This methodology was respectful of people’s time, continued the relationship building, and cohort members could be inspired by each other.

The Aesthetic Perspectives attributes aligned with our ongoing thought processes and with the hope that the work of Complex Movements would have continued resonance after we, as touring artists, had left a city. The framework created a structure for our conversation and helped us shape a more rigorous process. As a collective, we had ideas about what we wanted to know and were able to create explicit questions that fostered a depth of inquiry and clear answers.

Beware of the Dandelions. Photo by Doug Coombe.

We also used the framework to reflect on our practices as an artist collective. We are now creating new work and wanted to debrief together about what we learned through the development and touring of BotD to inform our next iteration. We organized a retreat for ourselves in Idlewild, Michigan, an historic location for Black art and movement work. We collaborated with Marquez Rhyne of Inventive Interventions to facilitate. We used a similar process to determine what content from the framework we would use and how. We framed reflection questions using the attributes. For instance, a key principle that we use in our work is uncertainty and doubt. It is a place that we try and lean into. So, for the collective’s self-reflection, we also thought about the framework’s question related to disruption:

How do the work and creative process cause us to question or consider their own beliefs, assumptions, or values?

During the retreat, we asked ourselves: What are some assumptions about the creative process that were either affirmed or destroyed during the making of BotD?

Aesthetic Perspectives proved helpful to understanding both the impact of this process on the cohort and our ability to reflect on the past few years of work. While we were in development and touring, there were numerous ideas and surprises that arose. We realized that building large-scale durational work was going to limit the number of cities we would reach. We knew that going in, but we felt like that was necessary to build the relationships and support local organizing infrastructure. We are challenging ourselves to make work that is more nimble and accessible with the hopes of engaging more communities.

We also realized that performance mode (inside the pod with projections, animation, and sound design) and installation mode (videos called Movement Memory Maps of people telling first person stories about trying to make change in their communities) were both deep sensory experiences for participants. This helps us think about balance as we move forward in developing new work. These are insights that occurred over the years, but our retreat time helped us concretize them and build a design matrix for future work.

While the framework is helpful, using it requires seeing into the attributes and definitions and tailoring questions for your participants and needs. This framework is rich, and upon reflection, we would have liked to spend more time with it rather than adding it to the agenda of a creative retreat filled with other intentions. As our collective member Wes put it:

I would like to go back and dig into the things that really interest me within this framework … when it starts to talk about departures from European or standardized norms of assessing work, and really being able to pull those things apart, and really talking about work in that way. And having longer and deeper conversations about that. Even noticing where our work is unintentionally playing into those norms. Where is it a departure from those norms? Where is the power in the departure from those norms? And things of that nature are very interesting to me and my work, and thinking about work in general.

Based on our experience, we offer these suggestions:

  • Use this as a tool to create inquiries that are most relevant to you. It’s not all or none.
  • Give yourself and others time. This is a rich framework.
  • Think about how this can be used in conversation with the multiple people involved with the work.
  • Take notes. You will definitely want to revisit responses over time.

Complex Movements can continue to work with the Aesthetic Perspectives framework within our own work and to engage in cross pollination with others who use this as a tool for their work as well.

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