Back to the Future: Complex Movements Make Revolution
Robin D. G. Kelley on 2022 Fellow Complex Movements
How are your memories kept
When your hard drives crash
How will you archive the past?
— Complex Movements, “DNA”
Listen to this conversation
On the evening of January 12, 2022, I had an extraordinary two-hour conversation on Zoom with members of the Detroit-based arts and activist collective Complex Movements. The group had been on my radar for a while, and I had known artist and organizer Invincible/ill Weaver for several years through shared activist and familial circles and our common mentor, Grace Lee Boggs. But now I shared virtual space with the whole crew: graphic designer, artist, musician and curator Wesley Taylor; legendary music producer, artist, photographer, and filmmaker Waajeed; designer and engineer Carlos “L05” Garcia; and producer, vocalist, and cultural strategist Sage Crump. We covered damn near everything — the group’s genesis and history, philosophical and artistic influences, their objectives as organizers, and above all, the uses, misuses, and meanings of technology.
I recorded the interview, but when I searched for the file a few days later, it was gone! I ran the search engine a dozen times, used third-party software to scrape my hard drive, and even paid an Apple specialist to perform a more advanced search in hopes of restoring the deleted files. Still, nothing. Someone told me this was bound to happen since Mercury was in retrograde. Perhaps. But a similar thing happened exactly twenty years ago, when I recorded a conversation between Grace Lee Boggs and me and the cassette tape — my only copy — was lost in the mail.
Just as I was about to break down in tears, I thought about something Waajeed said during our interview. He spoke about the need to go back to ancient technologies, to recover ways of knowing that can more effectively plumb the power of human intelligence and creativity. Invincible echoed these sentiments a couple years ago: “Sometimes the best technology is our human technology of relationships and communication, our human technology of understanding what our body and our spirit need, and what our creative practice requires that might not correlate with having a certain tool.” Losing the recording forced me to do the hard work of engaging the ideas and intentions of Complex Movements, to dig deeper into their archive, and to interpret and write their story in order to fully comprehend their journey.
It all began in a Detroit taco shop, where Wesley Taylor, ill Weaver, and Waajeed met to discuss how to work together in ways that broke away from the rigid formats of live hip-hop performance. At least this is where the seeds began to sprout, although a project as ambitious, multi-disciplinary, and revolutionary as Complex Movements cannot possibly claim a single origin. Roots run deep. Waajeed cut his teeth in the Detroit techno scene and fundamentally shaped the city’s hip-hop scene by collaborating with Slum Village, J Dilla, Dwele, and Invincible, whose debut LP Shapeshifters he co-produced. Shapeshifters was released on Weaver and Taylor’s independent label Emergence Media in 2008. Like Waajeed, Taylor was a Detroiter, having graduated from Huron High School and the University of Michigan and continuing on to earn an MFA in design from Cranbrook Academy of Art. For two decades, Weaver worked as a principal organizer for Detroit Summer (a youth social justice project launched by James and Grace Lee Boggs). They also co-founded the Detroit Future Youth Network, Detroit Narrative Agency, and organized in support of Palestinian liberation. Carlos “L05” Garcia is a computer genius, multimedia artist, lyricist, and performer who graduated from the University of Michigan and worked with the hip-hop/electronic duo Celsius Electronics. He joined Complex Movements around 2012, followed by Sage Crump, a self-described “philosopher, strategist, movement worker, and maker” who wears many hats and is a critical bridge between arts, culture, and movement building, in part through her role as Chief Architect of Emergent Strategy at the Emergent Strategy Ideation Institute.
Detroit incubated Complex Movements, giving the collective its distinctive shape and orientation. The city is a model of radical praxis — the creative application of insurgent, critical knowledge to the struggle to turn industrial abandonment into a flourishing, sustainable, humane, caring, beloved community. Activists there, especially those associated with the James and Grace Lee Boggs Center, envision a transformed urban economy that promotes self-sufficiency, ecological sustainability, and human interaction. They call themselves Solutionaries, a phrase coined by the late James Boggs. They fight water shutoffs, create their own alternative sources of energy (wind, solar), run freedom schools, build collective economic power and sustainability through cooperatives and time banking, and turn empty lots into urban farms to deal with food insecurity, joblessness, and community alienation.
Radical philosopher Grace Lee Boggs (1915–2015) was the catalyst for Complex Movements, which took its name in 2010 after listening to her invoke quantum theory to explain new directions in organizing. As ill Weaver explained to me, Boggs spoke frequently “about quantum scales of changemaking as a way to describe organizing on hyperlocal levels; and critical connections (relationship building globally across hyperlocal small-scale projects and interconnected communities) as more effective than critical mass (which she used as a metaphor for mass rallies with unified slogans and charismatic leaders).” Drawing directly on Margaret Wheatley’s book, Leadership and the New Science, Boggs called for a paradigm shift from a Newtonian concept of the universe driven by mass force to quantum physics in which “local” efforts allow for direct participation in complex events, enabling us to affect a global system that is singular and connected. She is not making a case for incremental change but revolutionary change through what Wheatley calls “the invisible fabric of our connectedness.” For Sage Crump, “complex science gives us a new way to think about how change happens in the world. It moves from this idea of critical mass to critical connections.” One way to make critical connections is through “large-scale immersive artistic experiences that help us create new strategies for local organizing.” Boggs’ application of quantum theory to organizing led the group, as they put it, “down a rabbit hole of exploration into quantum physics and then complexity science, particularly emergence theory.” Hence the names Complex Movements and Emergence Media.
Complex Movement’s first collective art project grew out of a local movement to resist a corporate land grab on Detroit’s Eastside. Multimillionaire John Hantz, CEO of Hantz Group financial services in Southfield, announced in 2009 that he intended to buy up several thousand parcels of “blighted” land and create a massive farm with acres of apple orchards. The land belonged to the city, which had acquired nearly 84,000 parcels with single-family homes primarily through tax foreclosure. These homes once belonged to Black working-class families devastated by deindustrialization and the movement of auto plants out of Michigan. When the city informed Hantz that large-scale farming was not permitted within city limits, he then proposed planting acres of oak trees instead. Meanwhile, Detroit residents saw the creation of Hantz Farms/Woodlands as little more than a Trojan horse for land speculation. The people wanted affordable housing, land use policies that benefited the community, jobs, economic stability, and support for more small-scale urban gardening. In a rare moment of transparency, Hantz confessed that he intended to “create land scarcity” in order to drive up property values, while also beautifying the postindustrial landscape. Despite intense protest, in 2013 the Detroit City Council, under the direction of a state-appointed emergency financial manager, corporate lawyer Kevyn Orr, voted five to four to sell Hantz nearly two thousand parcels for less than $600,000.
In response to Hantz’s corporate land grab, Waajeed and ill Weaver wrote a song called “Apple Orchards.” A lyrical masterpiece brimming with vivid post-apocalyptic imagery (“Have you seen the apple orchards/ where the trees were trapped and tortured, then we lit a match and torched it/ Let it burn!!”), “Apple Orchards” is a parable about the consequences of predatory capitalism and human displacement. In addition to making a standard digital track, in 2012 Complex Movements decided to “release” the song in the form of old-fashioned, handcrafted music boxes. It was a commentary on the restoration of balance and the return of earlier forms of technology that reconnect humans to nature and history. As Wesley Taylor explained, “the music box is one of the original ways music was put into people’s homes.” Taylor, Weaver, and Waajeed spent weeks building one hundred music boxes by hand as part of a Community Supported Art subscription project. This grew out of an initial hand-cranked music box that was part of an exhibition and performance at the Detroit Science Center.
Carlos “L05” Garcia was recruited for their next project — a multimedia installation piece titled Three Phases. Combining video projection, lenticular surfaces, and an eight-foot interactive music box, the installation envisions how social change is made and the relationship between complex science, social movements, and struggles against displacement and dispossession. In many ways, it set the stage for their major project: Beware of the Dandelions.
Created and launched in 2016, Beware of the Dandelions is a stunning multimedia installation in the form of a mobile cypher that functions as a hip-hop performance, visual arts exhibition, and workshop space for people to share their organizing strategies and imagine the world they are trying to build. It is akin to a hip-hop opera, a lyrical play in eleven tracks that move us through a story of revolt against corporate power, environmental destruction, genetically modified food, industrial farming, land enclosure, “the water hoarders,” and prisons. Set in the twenty-fourth century in a small city that bears more than a passing resemblance to Detroit, it is the story of a popular uprising, the Dandelion Revolution, against a ruling class of “Dome Dwellers” who occupy the last unpolluted spaces on the planet. They consume genetically-modified “immortality apples” produced by workers who labor in factory farms and live in a state of semi-slavery on a “planetation.” The uprising is sparked by an elder who goes on a hunger strike to protest conditions, but dies. Songs like “Apple Orchard,” “Channel,” “Doubt,” “Man Made Drought,” and “False Solutions” recount how the commodification of resources forced people into “hubs” and a precarious life, and how underground revolutionaries resist the “groundskeepers” who control the land and resources. The story is neither utopian nor dystopian, but like great science fiction it reveals the contradictions we face today. The movement is wracked by internal debates among organizers over whether to fight the system from within or take more radical action. Complex Movements recognizes that movements are, indeed, “complex” and so they resist easy answers or triumphalist narratives. Instead, the piece grapples with internal contradictions that often derail social movements.
The performance takes place inside a mobile pod—a four-hundred-square-foot polyhedral dome designed by Detroit-based artist and architect Aaron Jones. Equipped with three projection screens, an LED lighting grid, a camera and sound system, the space provides an immersive visual and sound experience for about thirty-five audience members. The pod functions as a cypher. There is no raised stage, no sharp separation between performer and the people, or in Sage Crump’s words, “no charismatic leader, no centralized authority.” For Complex Movements, technology is to be used in the service of deepening human relationships and movement building. Early on in the process of creating Beware of the Dandelions, they experimented with artificial intelligence and technologies that ostensibly would connect everyone to a single network. “We were going to have people use certain sensors when they were participating in Beware of the Dandelions,” ill Weaver recalled, “but as we were thinking through it in the storyworld, we realized it was way too similar to tether and e-carceration tools — electronic incarceration, ankle bracelets.”
The parable is not intended to be didactic but interactive, inciting participants to connect with one another and draw on the story to reimagine current local political struggles. When Complex Movements mounted the show in Seattle, Dallas, and at home in Detroit, before they even entered “performance mode,” they sought ways to engage local communities. “Installation mode” involved collecting stories of social justice work ahead of the performance and integrating them into the show as “Movement Memory Maps.” The performance was then tailored to what they learned, employing emblems designed to organize the narrative and evoke the challenges, dreams, and desires of local movements. The emblems consist of graphic seals representing symbols from the natural world — fern, ants, wavicle, mycelium, starling murmuration, and dandelion. Mycelium, for example, is a complex fungus, a singular organism that represents interconnectedness and detoxification. A wavicle is usually associated with light, but refers to any entity possessing both waves and particles, thus symbolizing the struggle to move beyond binaries and embrace doubt and uncertainty. Starling murmuration references the uncanny ability of large flocks of birds to suddenly shift direction in perfect synchronicity, offering a glimpse into the power of collective decision-making, whereas ants embody the power of collective work and cooperative economics. And then there is the dandelion, the perfect symbol for “the decentralized spread of the weed’s seeds as well as the deeply connected taproots that make it hard to displace.” Each of these emblems are accompanied by instructions directing audience members to make decisions that would reorganize the space, creating new arrangements, new patterns, new “critical connections” leading inexorably to quantum leaps in movement building and revolutionary possibility.
The work doesn’t end here. At the conclusion of each performance, the collective shifts to workshop mode, where they work directly with attendees to share information, think through organizing strategies, and find ways to support local work. In Detroit it might mean working with local youth in their fight to drop felony charges against graffiti artists who tagged “free the water” on a local water tower. In Seattle it meant seeking ways to mobilize against the building of a new youth jail on a toxic site by connecting abolitionist and environmental justice organizers. In Dallas they worked with Mothers Against Police Brutality to help document local incidents of police violence. “A few days later,” recalled Sage Crump, “we had a performance called Stolen Birthdays and shared the work back to the community. It was one of those moments of being able to connect folks locally, artistically, social justice-wise, and also share to the wider community the stories happening in their own backyards.”
House and Home
Although members of Complex Movements have relocated to other parts of the country (Crump to New Orleans, Garcia to Los Angeles, Taylor to Virginia), Detroit continues to be the epicenter of their work. They are currently working with the legendary scholar, activist, and poet Aneb Kgositsile, a.k.a. Dr. Gloria House, a long-time Detroit resident and fixture in the Boggs’ circle of dedicated solutionaries. Known affectionately as “Mama Aneb,” Dr. House was a lead organizer with the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) in Alabama before moving to Detroit in 1967 — the year of rebellion. She protested police repression (for which she lost her job at the Detroit Free Press), co-founded the Detroit Independent Freedom Schools Movement, and helped build movements such as Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management and We the People of Detroit to fight water shutoffs, and continues to co-edit Riverwise, the publication of the Boggs Center. In 2010, coinciding with the founding of Complex Movements, Dr. House delivered a breathtaking talk and poem at the U.S. Social Forum that offered ten lessons from Grace Lee Boggs and her influence on political work in Detroit. She instructed activists to focus on the “aspirations, hopes, and needs” of the people we fight for, and to be principled and guided by love, honesty, and grace. These lessons encapsulate the key principles guiding Complex Movements’ revolutionary praxis: “Though the impact of the global economy of the transnational corporations has dismantled vital aspects of our cities and communities world-wide, remember that the wrecked terrain that has been left offers us a field of opportunity for rethinking, recreating, claiming a higher quality of human life. Of course, this requires our greatest effort of collective work and responsibility, of hope, and of unswerving faith in the people’s ability to make ‘a way out of no way!’”
Complex Movements is currently working on a project centering on the republication and re-engagement of Dr. House’s book, Tower and Dungeon: A Study of Place and Power in American Culture, which examines the relationship between the downtown Renaissance Center constructed after the 1967 rebellion, and Jackson State Prison, built in 1842. She describes them as “two faces of the same cultural commitment, deeply inscribed in the American landscape. At one end, we have towers of wealth protected by police forces; on the other, we have overcrowded dungeons for dispensable populations. Tower and dungeon—two armed camps serving the same interests, built on the basis of violent dispossession of the people, and maintained by threat of further violence.”
Ending the overcrowded dungeons has been the centerpiece of another, related campaign to draw attention to the brutal incarceration of Detroit environmental justice activist Siwatu-Salama Ra. In 2017, police arrested then twenty-six-year-old Ra for brandishing her legally-owned and unloaded gun in front of a woman with whom she was arguing, and who, eyewitness testimony confirmed, was preparing to plow her car into Ra and her two year old daughter. As Michigan is an open-carry, Stand Your Ground state, she was in her right to defend herself. Despite having no prior criminal record, she was convicted for felonious assault and felony firearm charges and sentenced to prison for a mandatory two years. At the time of sentencing she had entered her third trimester of pregnancy. The judge denied her appeal, forcing her to not only serve time but to give birth in the presence of four armed guards. Her son was taken from her two days later. As a result of mounting community pressure and a successful participatory defense campaign, the judge finally ordered her release on bond after serving eight and a half months in prison.
In response, Complex Movements collaborated with Ra on a powerful multimedia installation project called Kites on Kites: Shadow to Sky meant to lift up her story and those of other incarcerated mothers and their families. Her letters from prison represented written kites which they turned into actual kites flown by activists advocating for her release from prison. The installation superimposed Ra’s written kites on sculptures of box kites, alongside video footage of Ra’s reaction to first seeing these kites outside of the Huron Valley Correctional Facility in Ypsilanti, Michigan. The work puts a spotlight on the cruelty of imprisoning pregnant people, forcing them to give birth in the presence of armed guards, and the devastating impact prison has on entire families, not just the incarcerated individual. It is a clarion call for abolition—of the dungeon and the tower.
Kites and letters represent the kind of ancient technologies Complex Movements seeks to uphold and embrace. They connect people in ways the internet cannot. A lost letter or a windless day can force people to come together to create imaginative solutions that don’t always require hi-tech tools. While acknowledging that the internet is useful for connecting people — especially during the pandemic — members of Complex Movements also recognize its limits for deepening “hyper-local” relationships. And it is at the scale of the hyper-local that they can build alternatives to the tower and dungeon–liberatory architectures designed to nurture a radical imagination, new knowledge, and an abolitionist ethos of care.
Waajeed is building such an alternative in the form of the Underground Music Academy (UMA) to mentor young artists and to preserve Detroit’s rich legacy of electronic music. The name pays tribute to Underground Resistance, the record label created in the late 1980s by “Mad” Mike Banks and Jeff Mills credited with launching the second generation of Detroit techno and mentoring artists such as Waajeed on how to create, control, and distribute music without succumbing to the excesses of a predatory and hyper-commercialized industry. “We're creating a space that allows people to bathe in their uniqueness,” Waajeed explained. The values undergirding the UMA are self-determination, inclusiveness, and social justice. “The idea is to plant the seed inside of our students. Music is just a surface level to manifest these concepts, that idea of activism. Or as my dad used to say, ‘Put some paint where it ain't.’ If you decide later that you don’t want to be a musician at all, we hope that people can at least walk away with core values of decency.”
Planting the seeds for liberation and for future movements dedicated to creating a new world is precisely what Complex Movements is about. Sage Crump cut straight to the point when she described the Tower and Dungeon project as a way to reimagine spaces “that make you feel more connected” rather than the kind of deep alienation and isolation built into the corporate and carceral structures that dominate our lives. They do not measure their work in terms of winning or losing “campaigns” but in struggling “to be in right relationship with change.” She cautions against having any illusions about the difficult work ahead, and at the same time insists that we cannot afford to be disillusioned, which can happen when we focus solely on resisting state violence and oppression at the expense of our internal struggle to find new ways to be together. Planting seeds means infusing love into movement practice and learning “to see the people around us as resources and “sources. . . The source is our ‘soul space.’” “Our work is fundamentally about transcending pessimism, creating and holding space to nurture an abolitionist vision while continuing to engage the world as it is.”
All of their projects, from music boxes and Beware of the Dandelions to the fight for Siwatu-Salama Ra and prison abolition, are fashioned around human connection, care, and mutual support, at the trans-local scale—which is to say, connecting within and across local communities in struggle. It means connecting not for the purpose of “scaling up” but drilling down, building capacity and knowledge, and refusing all borders. Technology, in other words, is not the savior or liberator. It is merely a tool, and to paraphrase the oft-quoted Audre Lorde line, we need different tools if we intend to dismantle the master’s house and make the earth a livable home for all. We need Complex Movements.
Since 2019, Hantz Farms/Woodlands sold off 147 properties for a whopping $2.8 million — 110 properties went to commercial and real estate developers. The Detroit Brownfield Redevelopment Authority purchased thirty-seven of these parcels as part of a land swap deal to clear the way for a new Fiat Chrysler assembly plant. Similar to Hantz Farms, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) is profiting at the expense of the public to the tune of about $400 million in state and local subsidies, tax breaks, and “land swaps,” while agreeing to commit a mere $8 million in community benefits. The City of Detroit (City Walls and Arts and Culture Office) and FCA issued a call to artists to create a massive mural in the area — an obvious, cynical effort at “art washing” the destruction, dispossession, and pollution of the Beniteau Street neighborhood and surrounding Eastside communities. The plant is expected to emit hundreds of tons of toxins and volatile organic compounds annually, affecting mostly Black working-class residents already suffering from high rates of asthma. Members of Complex Movements joined with hundreds of artists, activists, and residents, spearheaded by the Detroit People’s Platform and “Just Beniteau Residents,” to resist racial capitalism’s latest assault on the land and people of Detroit, and efforts by the political/corporate class to use art to conceal the violence. The struggle continues.
“Have you seen the apple orchards
Where the trees are trapped and tortured
But they keep the captives gorgeous?”
Robin D. G. Kelley is the Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. History at UCLA. His books include, Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original; Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination; and Yo’ Mama’s DisFunktional!: Fighting the Culture Wars in Urban America. He is completing two books, Black Bodies Swinging: An American Postmortem and The Education of Ms. Grace Halsell: An Intimate History of the American Century (both forthcoming Metropolitan Books). His essays have appeared in several anthologies and publications, including The Nation, New York Times, and The Boston Review, for which he also serves as Contributing Editor.
Complex Movements is a Detroit-based artist collective supporting the transformation of communities by exploring the connections of complex science and social justice movements through multimedia interactive performance work. Their creative projects are inspired by the writings, philosophy, and experience of Detroit-based activist Grace Lee Boggs (1915–2015) and grassroots organizing in Detroit. Complex Movements is comprised of fine artist, designer, animator, curator, lyricist, and professor, Wesley Taylor; artist, designer, and engineer, L05 (Carlos Garcia); lyricist, organizer, and filmmaker, ill Weaver; creative producer, artist, cultural strategist Sage Crump; and music producer, sound designer, and filmmaker, Waajeed. Each member has spent years honing and evolving their craft, and they have been collaborating on various projects for over a decade. Complex Movements' work moves beyond call and response into a regenerative dialogue between artistic methodologies and communities.
Photo by Doug Coombe