Detroit-based Beware of the Dandelions tries to imagine what it takes to rebuild a society from catastrophe.
Detroit-based Beware of the Dandelions tries to imagine what it takes to rebuild a society from catastrophe. Courtesy of Complex Movements

Complex Movements, a Detroit-based collective of artists and activists who'll be at On the Boards for the next couple of weeks, certainly lives up to its name.

The phrase comes from a speech given by Grace Lee Boggs, the 99 year-old Chinese American activist and thinker who, among other accomplishments, was the first person to translate three of Marx's keystone essays from The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 into English. In the speech, which the company says Boggs gave roughly a decade ago, she talked about quantum physics and complexity science—and what they have to do with social change.

"She said we need to move away from Newtonian approaches to organizing: mass rallies and singular issues in linear strategies," the Complex Movements collective wrote in an e-mail.

Instead, the collective explained, Boggs encouraged “a quantum approach: small-scale and deeply rooted community projects that are interconnected through decentralized networks and webs. This led us down a rabbit hole of exploration into quantum physics and then complexity science, particularly emergence theory.”

The Wikipedia version of emergence theory: “A process whereby larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties.”

If you’ve stuck with me this far, you can tell Complex Movements are not your typical On the Boards company. Usually, OtB hosts artists who show up for a weekend of performances, some hanging out, and maybe a master class before they pack off to their next destination.

But this crew doesn’t do things that way. They are—the adjective is unavoidable—complex.

Cloud formations are complex systems where, as physicist Eberhard Bodenschatz wrote, spatio-temporal fields like temperature, fluid velocity, and humidity collaborate.
Cloud formations are complex systems where, as physicist Eberhard Bodenschatz wrote, "spatio-temporal fields like temperature, fluid velocity, and humidity collaborate." Tursunbaev Ruslan/Shutterstock

Their show Beware of the Dandelions sounds straightforward enough—it takes place in a "pod" that can fit 35 people at a time. That crowd steps into an immersive environment of music and video and helps build a new society after some kind of apocalypse.

But the company has also built partnerships with a collection of local social-justice, food-justice, environmental-justice, racial-justice, and anti-prison organizations (EPIC, Got Green?, FEEST, WonderLab, Africatown, Youth Speaks Seattle, and many more) that will participate in an impressive series of community events, from workshops to installations to dance parties.

Detroit, of course, looms large in all this talk about apocalypses and horizontal organizing (a more anarch-ish vision of change, rather than the top-down strategies of the institutional left).

Several people I talked to about Complex Movements described Detroit as "postapocalyptic," where a series of governmental and financial crises (a little over a third of its population is below the poverty line, a little under a third of its residential parcels are vacant) have resulted in residents doing things for themselves in radical ways.

People are organizing urban gardens to try and ensure that their neighborhoods have enough to eat, crowd-funding solar-powered streetlights to compensate for the roughly 40 percent of them that aren't working, forming landscaping crews to tend neglected city parks, and "stealing" water in the face of mass shutoffs. (There was also a fascinating, if only partially successful, campaign surrounding gentrification and Whole Foods—when the grocery chain moved into some neighborhoods, residents organized to demand that the company establish local-hire quotas and buy from local growers.)

Beware of the Dandelions promises to deliver some of the lessons learned from those ruptures in workday city life.

"We want to bring the warnings of the austerity, mass foreclosures, and water privatization we are facing," Invincible wrote. "We want to exchange lessons from the anti-displacement struggles in both of our communities. We have much to learn from the anti-criminalization and anti-incarceration (prison abolition, detention center resistance) organizing happening here as well as many other projects gaining power and cross-sectional solidarity."

The collective includes designer and artist Wesley Taylor, music producer and filmmaker Waajeed, "creative technologist" Carlos (L05) Garcia, and Invincible/ill, a rapper who prefers plural, gender-neutral pronouns and lived in Israel until they were 7 years old. According to their Wikipedia page, Invincible then moved to Michigan and learned English partly by writing down hiphop lyrics and looking up the unfamiliar words. (One wonders what percentage of the lyrics they were unable to find in a standard dictionary. But perhaps there is something revealing in the fact that their first tussle with English involved decoding two threads of language—words they could find in newspapers and words they couldn't—at the same time.)

Invincible toured extensively as a musician and was quick to develop community connections in the cities they visited. (In Seattle, they performed at the restaurant and community hub Hidmo, as well as Washington Hall, with local performers.) Those relationships have been key to getting Beware of the Dandelions—and, more importantly, its various "movement-building" activities in the city at large—off the ground.

"They get it," says Cristina Orbé of FEEST, a Seattle nonprofit that focuses on youth and food-justice issues (among others). "There's a right way to do community organizing." The wrong way, she says, is "coming in and telling people what you want to offer, pitying people... Imagine the crappiest relationship you've ever had. They don't listen, they bulldoze in, not think about how they're affecting your space. You eat at all their favorite restaurants, but they never eat at yours."

Some of the FEESTers after a kitchen tour and some cooking lessons at Tallulahs.
Some of the FEESTers after a kitchen tour and some cooking lessons at Tallulah's. Courtesy of FEEST.

But Orbé says Invincible, who she first met at Hidmo, is different. They listen. And they don't get defensive or fragile when race, and even the possibility that Invincible might not be getting something about race, enters the conversation. "And their heart is in it," Orbé says. "Anger might get you in the door, but love is what's going to get you to walk up that whole frickin' mountain."

Lane Czaplinski, artistic director of On the Boards, says Beware of the Dandelions is a different kind of show for the theater—he is, in some ways, taking his hands off the wheel a little more than usual and letting this be, in his words, a more "artist-led" process.

"Complex Movements are activists," he says. "What I’ve learned being around them is that some cultural competency I thought I had I don’t have." From some kinds of marketing material to gendered bathrooms, the company has, he says, "opened my eyes to things we might call smaller issues or nuances, but they’re actually pretty huge... We programmed Complex Movements to help challenge our community. And that started with us."

Luzviminda Uzuri "Lulu" Carpenter—a local organizer affiliated with WonderLab, Hollow Earth Radio, and several other projects—suspects Beware of the Dandelions will reveal more commonalities between Seattle and Detroit than people might expect, particularly regarding gentrification and displacement.

It's curious, she says, how in both cities complaints about development are most glibly dismissed by people who already own their homes or are in a similar position of economic security.

"People say development is good," Carpenter says, "but if you talk about marginalized people, homeless folks, LGBTQ folks, black people, immigrants, people being pushed out of the city—as things are being developed, who are they being developed for?"

Good question.

A full e-mail thread, based on questions I'd sent the company earlier, follows:

* * *

People here speak very admiringly about the movement-building happening in Detroit and your role in that. What do you do there that is different and that we might learn from here?

Detroit has one of the greatest parallel music and movement building legacies in the world. Our role as artists is no different than everyone else in Detroit. We are active members of our community in honoring and continuing that legacy. Everyone one in Detroit is active to some extent. It’s part of our survival because can’t depend on the system so we take care of ourselves and each other. In Detroit, all you have is your people, your cousins, your neighbors, your community.

Are there other examples of struggles that you all have been involved in (or that typify the kind of work you’re interested in) you could share, to give some idea of what we might learn from Detroit?

Like most people in our city we’ve been deeply affected by the issues of mass land grabs and displacement. Last winter, we were displaced when a speculator from California purchased the studio where we work, Talking Dolls.

Almost simultaneously, a collective member was displaced from his home in Capitol Park, along with the building across the street which was section eight housing for senior citizens. The elderly tenants were being forced to move in winter and given no financial support even though most of them were on a fixed income. All of this was a result of business interests connected to corporate mogul and land barren Dan Gilbert, who bought up most of downtown of Detroit, including Capitol Park. When we were asked to perform at an event funded by Gilberts’ company in that neighborhood, we used it as an opportunity to give community members, specifically the seniors, a platform to talk publicly about the injustices that were happening. This helped support their campaign to receive moving vouchers.

This series of events made us realize that after having spent the past 15 years spreading the gospel of Detroit around the world, we didn’t own a brick of it. It’s stressful being a creative rooted in Detroit and not having a stable to create your work from. We started pooling money with members of our community to buy property and help each other fix it up. We also began supporting our neighbors who were fighting foreclosures to navigate the bureaucracy necessary to stay in their homes and our blocks.

The lesson we hope to share is that in Detroit personal struggles are common struggles. These experiences of injustice are part of a pattern, and people shouldn’t feel isolated and can connect to organize around shared common problems. Artistic mediums can help bring people together to envision solutions and bring them to fruition.

Cristina from FEEST mentioned the Whole Foods campaign to try and get the corporation to demonstrate some neighborhood/community benefit. It sounded very inspiring (partly because we’re a city where billion-dollar industries are setting up shop right now and overhauling the economic and social landscapes of various neighborhoods).

This article by our friend and adviser Adrienne Maree Brown talks about this campaign.

Although that campaign wasn't able to create an outright community benefits agreement, it still tried to make their entry less damaging. But ultimately since the store opened it has done considerable damage on small local health food businesses. The bigger story is not just holding Whole Foods accountable but more importantly supporting Black owned health food stores like Goodwells, or the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network’s new community owned food cooperative complex which is opening next year.

What’s the origin story of Complex Movements?

Grace Lee Boggs (99 year old Detroit based Chinese-American philosopher and activist, and a mentor of members of our collective) gave a speech about a decade ago, where she spoke about movements using the metaphor of quantum physics. She said we need to move away from newtonian approaches to organizing: mass rallies and singular issues in linear strategies; and toward a quantum approach: small scale and deeply rooted community projects that are interconnected through decentralized networks and webs. This led us down a rabbit hole of exploration into quantum physics and then complexity science, particularly emergence theory.

Wes and ill/invincible have collaborated for almost two decades, while jeedo and ill/invincible have collaborated for over a decade. Around the time Grace gave this speech we decided to come together and create something collaborative and interdisciplinary that broke out of the boundaries of any of our mediums, inspired by these ideas. We held roundtables and community events. We made new music and experimented with new creative mediums to express these ideas. We produced an installation based performance at the Detroit Science Center before it was foreclosed and privatized. We soldered 100 handcrafted music boxes. And then we began collaborating with Carlos/L05 while developing a piece called Three Phases for ArtPrize in Grand Rapids. Around that time we linked with Sage and started developing Beware of the Dandelions.

Why are you doing these community events in addition to the performances?

Community events are integrated into all facets of Beware of the Dandelions because we view it as much more than a performance. Beware of the Dandelions supports and raises the visibility of local social justice work in Seattle, make connections to Detroit also connects the work happening in those cities. The interactive multimedia performance, visual art installation is the container through which this happens. Complex Movements actively invites communities most impacted by intersecting systems of oppression to co-facilitate and share space with us. We do not ascribe to the separation of art and organizing. These are facets of our lives and our work and both are given equal weight and consideration.

Can you tell me a little bit about what happens inside the pod? I’ve been told it involves post-apocalyptic society-building and some light audience participation, as well as a strong digital media component. Can you tell me anything more?

During performances, audience members play the role of post apocalyptic survivors in a parable that tracks the plight of a community struggling to create change and new societies. This takes place in a 400 sqft pod that fits 35 people inside. The experience in the pod begins to help communities understand how the ideas of complex sciences are applicable to local social justice issues. The story unfolds through projected animation, immersive sound and interactive components. The original music created for Beware of the Dandelions is rooted in the many musical genres that birthed in Detroit such as techno, Motown, house music and underground hip hop.

Wes – This is a unique music experience that most people are not accustomed to. Other things we bring to the experience are interactivity, immersiveness and storytelling. That’s what goes on in the pod and why the pod is necessary for this to take place.

How has the work changed since its first performances in Detroit?

The first run of Beware of the Dandelions took place in 2013 in Detroit at the Charles Wright Museum of African American History in 2013. It was our first attempt at bringing many of the elements together and for us to test the ability to immerse an audience into the world we were creating. We learned a lot from this opportunity for community feedback.

Beware of the Dandelions is essentially the same story from 2013 but with more depth and nuance. We’ve worked with a screenwriter and video game/experience designer to deepen the story and world building and interactive elements. This meant creating new images and music.

The visual art installation mode developed a new element that integrates community stories through a concept we call movement memory mapping and story seed saving. Most importantly the last two years have been extremely trying and taught us many lessons personally and collectively. All of these life challenges were channeled directly into the project.

Sage: Over the last 2 years, we’ve worked to push ourselves creatively in every way. This meant learning new software, continuous rewriting and revisiting what it means as a touring artists to come into a city with respect. This is how we developed the community cohort model.

How has Seattle been like, or unlike, other cities where you’re trying to do similar work?

The community led movements here are powerful in ways that are unique to other places we have been. We have a lot to learn from the communities being most negatively impacted and displaced by the boom in the tech industry. There are organizations that are already working at the intersections of oppressions. Similarly to other cities, there are clear areas of investment and divestment.

Wes - From what I’ve heard and overheard from regular people, the writing is on the wall that there are people who won't be able to live here much longer because the cost of living is so high. People in Detroit are also starting to have those same concerns based on similar dynamics but to a different degree.

Los - One of the challenges is there a lot of difficulty trying to find a place for Beware of the Dandelions. On The Boards is built for something of this magnitude and there seems to be an infrastructure for this type of work here. In Detroit and Dallas, we are retrofitting a lot to make spaces that weren't necessarily built for this kind of thing fit as best we can.

What is the influence of Grace lee Boggs in your work?

Invincible/ill - Complex Movements' work is most connected to Grace Lee Boggs philosophies regarding the need to center growing our souls and transforming ourselves and our relationships. This is in addition and integral to resisting and organizing against injustices. Our work is not just informed by her ideas, it is more so rooted in the outgrowths of the project her and Jimmy Boggs and others co-founded, Detroit Summer, and other hands on projects for change in Detroit.

Grace takes Ideas and Philosophy seriously. Detroit Summer (which some of the collective members have done work with) connects people through activities and hand on practice. Central to that process was bringing people together to talk about ideas of change. We aim to emulate that through Beware of the Dandelions. There are both large concepts for people to discuss and hands on activities and action that engage folks to help people envision a different kind of future. And those are philosophical ideas which were programmatically part of the activities and thinking about what is, and what ought to be.

Grace’s work through Detroit Summer was also focused on the belief in the need to draw on wisdom intergenerationally through connections and dialogues between people who embody social movements as part of their life history, and in conversation with young people who are being impacted by so many of the onslaughts, and are interested in change, to have an opportunity to develop their philosophies around how they approach changemaking.
Many of those approaches reverberate in our work as Complex Movements and with Beware of The Dandelions as well.

Are there specific things you hope to teach Seattle, and hope to learn from Seattle, while you’re here?

Invincible/ill - We want to bring the warnings of the austerity, mass foreclosures, and water privatization we are facing. We want to exchange lessons from the anti displacement struggles in both of our communities. We have much to learn from the anti criminalization and anti incarceration (prison abolition, detention center resistance) organizing happening here as well as many other projects gaining power and cross sectional solidarity. We most of all hope to bring the lessons from our elders like Grace, as well as our recently gained ancestors such as Charity Hicks and Sheddy Rollins. Charity urged us to "Wage Love". Sheddy told us that "Transformation is Necessary in Everything". Grace tells us "Creativity is the key to unlock human liberation."

Waajeed - Part of the reason we work with communities is to find out what's happening here and make connects to Detroit and to the other cities, and share our point of view and how we see things through Beware of The Dandelions.

As a collective of artists, how does your working model mirror possibilities for organizing?

Sage - Complex Movements does interdisciplinary work. This means that all of the artistic modalities are connected to each other in support of the storytelling. We do this through content generation sessions where the collective gathers and shares ideas. No one only focuses on their one section, and this makes the whole stronger. Similarly, we support intersectional organizing. The community event on April 12 was a workshop on state violence, criminalization and ecological justice. Over 70 people within the Seattle community joined in a discussion on how these three problems intersect and created a list of actions that can address them. The same concepts used to create the artwork can be used to create change.

Things we want people to know:

Waajeed – We want people to know all things are possible. This all started with a song several years ago. We've managed to push this and it's gotten bigger. All great things start with an idea.

Wes - This piece is a reflection of our experience living in Detroit and this is the best way we know how to share it. All of this comes together and keeps Detroit at the center. We stay energized and it's brand new to us a lot because real-time information gets fed into the piece and that makes it perpetually new.