Last month, while working on a preview of Beware of the Dandelions, a show by Detroit-based collective Complex Movements at On the Boards, I kept running into a stubborn problem: Nobody seemed able to describe what it actually was.
People generally agreed that the show involved a small audience inside a video-drenched "pod," as well as hiphop, audience participation, and social-justice issues. As the company (sort of) explained in an e-mail:
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... 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.
I still couldn't quite picture it.
To complicate matters, the collective had scheduled weeks of events, video installations, and "community conversations" featuring local activists: prison abolitionists, food-justice advocates, leaders of "undoing racism" workshops, and so on. Typically, when a company comes to On the Boards, it hangs out for a few days, does its theater or dance, maybe teaches a master class, and then decamps to the next city. What was Complex Movements—and On the Boards—up to?
After taking a few trips to the pod, I can understand why people have trouble describing Beware of the Dandelions. It's not one thing, but three things stacked on top of each other: a political proposition (Detroit artists take over a Seattle theater with an unusual degree of autonomy), a performance (the pod), and a conversation the collective wants us to have with ourselves about racism, capitalism, and resistance.
Let's start in the middle of this triple-decker sandwich with a concrete, spoiler-alert account of the show itself—which, despite all the rhetorical fog, is actually quite simple. Small audiences are escorted into the egg-shaped pod for about an hour and listen to a hiphop epic about a toxified future-world where people revolt against an elite class called "the Captains of Industry" in a communistic, nonhierarchical, eco-friendly way. You may be familiar with the historic tension between Vladimir Lenin and Rosa Luxemburg: He advocated for top-down revolutionary cells led by elite and trained cadres; she fought for horizontal, spontaneous uprising from below. (For what it's worth, he died in bed and was venerated. She was shot in the street and thrown into a canal.) Dandelions takes the Luxemburg line.
Sample lyrics: "Instead of being trapped / controlled and grown in rows / we the wild seeds that overthrow / dreams take root / deep in the soil / cracking the street / and reach like sequoias / interdependent new ecosystem / babies in wombs in the fetal position / soon as it blooms / the people will listen." Unfortunately, on the night I attended, the sound wasn't at peak clarity. The score by musician Waajeed was dynamic and varied, sampling from Detroit's history of Motown, hiphop, and frenetic techno—but the lyrics by MC Invincible/ill were a little tough to follow. (Though I did hear, and enjoy, the opening lines of a general meeting among the revolutionaries: "Everyone turn on your facial-recognition blockers / We're here to make a plan and can't nobody stop us.")
The performers are hidden, except for a brief appearance at the end, but video images streak across the interior walls of the pod: raindrops, silhouettes of vines and barbed wire, gutted buildings, digitized faces, blooming dandelions (a symbol, as you might have guessed by now, of populist resilience).
The audience is then encouraged to chant "WAGE LOVE" while being led to another room for a postshow discussion "circle," where things get even more sincere. (This is the third part of the sandwich: conversations.) After the performance, one woman quietly sobbed into her hands, one man offered robust "mmm-hmms" after hearing sentiments he agreed with, a couple of people looked like they were trying to suppress smirks, and most of the rest of us wore studiedly neutral smiles. It was difficult to tell what we were collectively thinking. That night, the conversation was a little strained, with shy audience members and a nervous local activist-facilitator.
It would be dishonest to omit the fact that being released into the fresh night air was a relief. I have no opposition to love, and also suspect capitalism isn't the most intelligent or humane way to organize our affairs, but socially compulsory chanting and sharing—however well-intentioned and solidarity-minded—gives me the heebie-jeebies.
This weekend, after attending one of the installations (a series of video interviews with mostly African American activists discussing their work with the Black Panthers in the Deep South, as well as current struggles in Detroit), the conversation was a little livelier. People talked about generational conflict within "the movement" and so on, and I asked a question. Complex Movements frequently references Grace Lee Boggs, its 99-year-old Chinese American activist mentor, and her talk about complex science and emergence theory (defined by Wikipedia as "a process whereby larger entities, patterns, and regularities arise through interactions among smaller or simpler entities that themselves do not exhibit such properties"): What do they have to do with culture, activism, and conflict within "the movement"?
Then Invincible/ill told a story.
They had just returned from Detroit, where they had gone for a few days of downtime. (They prefer gender-neutral pronouns.) But, shortly after they arrived, a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent shot and killed 20-year-old Terrance Kellom, the cousin of a dear friend. Kellom was supposedly hiding out at his father's house after stealing some cash and pizzas from a delivery guy. Officials say Kellom was shot because he was "wielding" a hammer—the father, who watched as his son was gunned down, as well as press reports, contradict this claim. Then reporters dug up the ICE agent's long and troubling history of domestic and on-the-job violence. Something had to be done. So Invincible/ill and others in Detroit organized a march near the scene of the killing. After a little chanting and a press conference, they expected the crowd to disperse.
It did not.
As a massive green paddy wagon pulled up, Invincible/ill said, organizers negotiated with police and the crowd, trying to prevent a mass arrest. But then a few people, including Invincible/ill, started spreading the word that there was a legal loophole. The crowd could hold the intersection and avoid arrest if it kept moving by marching in a circle through the crosswalks. The worst the police could do in that case—legally, anyway—was hand out tickets for jaywalking. The demonstrators whispered that to each other, person to person, and the tactic worked. "The way that was achieved," Invincible/ill said, "was small-scale communication—like ants, like starlings... that's emergence. A complex system made up of relationships, and not just moving parts."
Detroit has become a point of fascination for people who are curious about capitalism and its failures: 39.3 percent of its residents live in poverty, 26 percent of its residential parcels are vacant, 30 percent of its streetlights are out, tens of thousands of people are facing water shutoffs, and businesses are muscling in to privatize branches of government, including utilities. It is also a place that is finding collective ways of solving problems in the bottom-up, Luxemburg, Dandelions mode—crowdfunded and solar-powered streetlights, volunteer groundskeeper crews to tend neglected city parks, collective urban gardens to ensure that neighborhoods have access to fresh produce. This is the home of Complex Movements.
Given all this, in which vicinity of Beware of the Dandelions should the critic point and say, "There's the art and I think X about it"? The pod? The awkward conversations? The astonishingly revelatory conversations?
This dilemma recalls a heated debate I had with a fellow Stranger critic several years ago. I can't remember which artist we were fighting over, but the crux of my argument was: The individual and her work are not synonymous. An artist can be a monster, but still make a masterpiece. The crux of her argument was: If an artist can't get herself together enough to be decent, she's not capable of making great work.
Since there's no accounting for taste—in "great work" or anything else—the duel ended in a snarling and frustrated draw.
This is the inverse of the question about Complex Movements. They, by all appearances, are rigorously thoughtful and kind individuals whose politics sympathize with the mistreated and oppressed. So does their work, and their postshow discussions and "community events," during which the moderators tend to graciously thank any audience member who shares a question or thought, however asinine.
So we're left with the conundrum: Is it wrong to praise the vicious asshole for work that moves you? Is it wrong to criticize the apparently virtuous—maybe even saintly—activist for work that leaves you cold and confused? Or is it best to step back, let these probably unresolvable questions float by on wings of silence, and wait for a bird that's easier to catch?
However murky that question may be, it's at least clear that the members of Complex Movements have not just come to show us some work—they're here for the emergence.