NET/TEN Shareback: Invincible - How Do We Make Work That's Healing Rather Than Retraumatizing?

Fall 2012 Seed Grant Recipient

Invincible (Detroit, MI) visited Micha Cardenas and Patrisse Cullors, Los Angeles–based artists working on projects exploring community autonomy, violence, and mass incarceration. Cardenas and Cullors also traveled to Detroit to observe Invincible in the rehearsal room with Complex Movements.  Both visits included community learning circles and conversations.


With support from the NET/TEN seed grant, Invincible (Complex Movements) was able to connect with Patrisse Marie Cullors-Brignac (Stained:Freedom Portals) and Micha Cardenas (Autonets) through a six month conversation series. These conversations, hosted in both Detroit and Los Angeles, explored the connections between multi-media performance work and social justice movements.

The Detroit conversation, held in June at the Wright Museum for African-American History, was facilitated by Sage Crump (Managing Director of Art is Change) and joined by members of the Complex Movements collective/ensemble and their extended community. The excerpt of the conversation below focuses on the question: “How do we make work that is healing rather than retraumatizing?”, particularly when all three of the projects discussed focus on addressing violence.

Sage (Moderator) All of this work has something to do with violence and what’s put upon people’s bodies. How do you create work that isn’t re-traumatizing, so that you don’t see the images of the violence, but still tells a story and helps people heal?
Freedom Portals

Stained is interesting because it doesn’t show the violence, not imagery wise, but it makes you feel the violence. And, you’re reading the testimony so you hear it. But, there’s something about visual imagery that – that’s something in my body that could put me in shock for a couple days. Versus reading it where I can have my own imagination about it, versus someone else’s imagination. So, for me it was important for Stained that it didn’t show violence necessarily, that I didn’t project beatings. That it was the words that you heard and words that you read, and people can tune in and check out when they need to. And that’s what a lot of people do with Stained.

I have friends who have seen it multiple times and are like “I just don’t read it. I just listen.” Or, have friends who are like, “I just check out with the words. Like, it’s too much happening with the audio. I just read it.” So, people have a little more of a choice. But, by the time we got to Rise of the Dandelions, I just felt like…um, I grew up on sci-fi and fantasy, and I really like pretty things. And it’s because I didn’t live in a pretty place. And, it was very important for me as a child to go to books that I can read, and look at pretty images, and those things were really important for me as a child, and I think I’m actually tapping into that a lot. I mean, children know what they need and I needed a lot of hope. So, I would sit up in bed for hours imagining all the many things that could happen.

And I feel like that’s what Rise of the Dandelions is. It’s like really imaginative process. We collaborate with 15 different artists across LA and just told folks to tell the story of a dandelion and put it into their own context. The only kind of thread we wanted was to talk about State violence and the prison industrial complex and to try to tell that story. Like, what’s our future, what’s our vision? And, when we have the ability to talk about our future and our vision. I feel like that’s how we can move out of re-traumatizing ourselves and our communities.


It’s interesting. I feel like I haven’t thought until like, today about how all three pieces are responses to violence in different ways. Economic violence, violence by the prison industrial complex, gender and sexual violence, individual violence that we experience every day. That last piece, the piece in Brazil. I titled it “We already know and we don’t yet know” because something that’s been really central to me in that in the process of making this project is working horizontally. It’s working in a way that doesn’t privilege me as an artist, but invites the community into the piece. So, like all the movement that you saw, I mean, some of those movements were mine, but they were mixed in with everybody else’s. And so, I’m trying to use this process of just inviting people to share what their bodies already know about violence and safety. Because I feel like we already know violence like in our bodies, but we don’t necessarily know what a world without prisons looks like, or how to get there.

And so, it’s really important for me that the process of working toward that world. Like I want to be building ways of preventing violence that don’t rely on police and prisons. And it’s important to me that the process to getting there is a healing process that helps us. You know, part of healing trauma for me is accessing memory, and accessing feelings about it. I feel like that comes through just asking people to just, “do a movement that feels safe to you”. I feel like it has a way of letting you…instead of relying on those images of violence or even the actual description of a specific violent act, it allows you to access your own memories or your own feelings about it in ways that you might not be able to verbalize, or you might not have images of that violence.

(Complex Movements)
I think that I look for colors and just like… I don’t know, for me when I’m like mixing the visuals live, I try and find a way to capture – if a song feels like it’s supposed to be a little more organic, or if the subject matter seems like it should feel more direct human connection, maybe showing video, live video that’s not as electronically affected to make it a little more intimate and try to connect with the subject matter in that way, if it’s a live performer. As opposed to if something is a little more spacey and digital to have outlines that glow and are a little more abstract.
I think it’s an interesting kind of like experiment and search for what the appropriate visuals for each song we are performing are, and hopefully it’s gotten better each time. It’s like feel out as we are able to gel the songs more and more. It’s cool to be able to vibe off them.
Invincible (Complex Movements)

The storyline of Beware of the Dandelions is rooted in one of my first experiences with activism being when the Ku Klux Klan spoke on the roof of City Hall when I was a freshman in high school. And, being recruited by a sectarian organization to protest them but in a way that was very agitative. They were just trying to agitate people who were angry. Particularly young people like myself. I was  14/15 at the time. They were trying to agitate us because they knew we were angry about the KKK speaking in town. They had us all riled up and I used to attend their meetings and they would try to feed me all these ideas that, “You’re going to be the next Richard Wright.” and “You’re going to be the next great leader of this movement.” And things like that. And I was really ambivalent because I felt very angry, and it affirmed my anger. But I felt like I was also feeding into the Klan’s trap of what they wanted us to do.

So, the day of the rally, hundreds of my friends gathered outside of City Hall to protest and were throwing bottles. And a good friend of Wesley and I almost murdered a Klan member because he was down on the ground and he was about to kick him in the head and serve him his death blow and then this other girl who I went to high school with actually covered this man’s body with her body, and because she was a black woman, everyone was shocked that she was saving this Klan’s member’s life.

It’s a very visceral memory for me, and there was tear gas and everywhere downtown. And I was disgusted because I was like, “I’m angry at the Klan and I feel outraged.” And I emotionally want to respond to the Klan like our friend Harlan responded just, at the same time, it didn’t feel like it was getting to the root of the problem of white supremacy.

Simultaneously, the mayor of Ann Arbor organized another protest to kind of ignore the Klan rally and have people down the street at like a basically a peace rally where they were supposed to ignore what was happening, as a gathering of colorblindness is how she framed it. And, people were there with like drums and singing. And, it didn’t really get to the root of the problem either. So here were both of these options – these false choices of people either revolting against the Klan or trying to reform against the Klan or reform the system of racism and injustice that the Klan is a symbol of. And neither of them felt like options for me. And I was so disillusioned and disheartened by the movement.

And it took me years to return back to, “Ok, how do we approach activism in a way that’s really about rebuilding our communities or building these visionary solutions?” You know, still balancing that resistance AND vision is necessary like Grace’s recent epiphany. Finally coming around to this point that she’s like we don’t just need vision, we also need resistance. So, yes we need to protest when things like that happen, but not just in ways that are reactionary. What are the visionary ways that we’re resisting?

And that’s in the violence that we’re countering in our movements we perpetuate because we continue to put ourselves in these false binaries where we within our movement attack one another by saying that “you’re not radical enough,” or “you’re too radical.” And, it prevents us from being able to actually create both visionary- and resistance-based opportunities to grow together. So that’s what our piece is looking at. I feel very traumatized by those experiences in the movement - from that first experience to that same organization still continues to plague our movement. The same one that riled me up when I was 15, just the other day was in the news for trying to organize a protest of young people 15 to 16 years old against a school opening that has some problems that should be protested for what they’re doing, but not in the reactionary way that they’re approaching it. So it becomes a thing that disempowers communities from being able to take a holistic stance in visionary resistance and focuses more on reactionary resistance. So by that being said, we made a choice to not show footage of riots and things like that which would be a literal interpretation of that scene in the story because we felt like we would re-traumatize people. But we were trying to have people act it out in a way that is slightly playful. That scene is one of the games and interactive component of that experience, in a way that they still feel really connected to it, but that it leaves some room for humor.  I think that humor actually is a key component that allows us - actually both beauty and humor - allow us to engage with some of these traumatizing subject matters but still leave some healing salve.





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Friday, August 16, 2013

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