a mid-winter update
why i’m writing this thing; new website; making room for abolition goes online; decentralized storytelling; things i’ve been up to; things coming up
🐰 new (lunar) year 🌱 new website 📰 new..sletter?
I've been antsy lately, feeling the need to externalize things somewhere besides my apartment / studio, which, let's be real—are one and the same.So, welcome to an outlet for my thoughts that is not also a doom-spiral-inducing-hole named Instagram or Twitter.
This newsletter thing is coming into being around the same time that I redesigned my website. To be honest, I actually wrote most of this last year, but for some strange reason—the reason is perfectionism—I wanted to wait until I finished my website to share this missive. I'm banking on the very public promise and presumed regularity of sharing newsletters being the miracle that will help me grow out of the need to have things perfectly polished before I share them with the world.
While working on my site—which, by the way, is not yet done—I've been thinking a lot about Jake Advincula's writing on indigenizing the internet, digital gardening, the poetics of websites, my website as a "shifting house next to a river of knowledge," whatever metaphor fits best to describe how I'd like to "be online." Whatever it is, I know it doesn't involve the constant swirling shitstorm and self-hate inducing comparison machine I'm addicted to on social media.
So, here I sit, musing in another corner of the internets about whatever's been marinating this season; externalizing some thinking, notes, questions, obsessions, readings, and work. I'm calling it "well-seasoned updates” to loosely refer to the fact that it will contain some spicy takes and that I aim to send it out roughly “seasonally,” though I haven’t quite decided how I’m defining “seasons.” Stay tuned.
At its core, my site and this newsletter are as much about collecting the things that influence me as processing and sharing my work; attempting a different—more honest, more contemplative, more timely—form of citation, perhaps. It's about acknowledging the works that shape me as they shape me, the notes I'm scribbling as I go, the questions too young to have answers, rather than only sharing them when I publish something that requires a bibliography or when I feel like I've "figured it all out."
Plus, my mom keeps asking what I'm working on, so: This is for you, mom.
Writing is humbling, though. Every time I start a new writing project I panic at several points in the process thinking I've forgotten how to write. I hate feeling like my writing is unresolved or unclear. I hate that stringing together words into sentences into paragraphs into a newsletter feels so permanent in comparison to a momentary Tweet or Insta story. The worst part of writing a newsletter is that at some point, it has to be.. finished. But, here I sit on the morning I promised to press send still adding and deleting words to get it “right,” knowing it will never be quite right. This will be painful, but hopefully in a good way.
I should name that I've been inspired to write more and differently, lately, by a few people: Kameelah Janan Rasheed, whose monthly-ish Substack "I Will (?) Figure This All Out Later" is a work of art: a bewilderingly candid account of her world written so deftly it'll leave you thinking she does, in fact, already have it all figured out. I dream of writing like Kameelah. Second, Kameelah channels Octavia Estelle Butler in her newsletters, before sharing a list of things she's read and watched and listened to and eaten lately—the things that have possessed her of late. A similar spirit is behind this newsletter and my site, so much so that this quote is now a permanent fixture on my homepage.
I dream of writing and making worlds like Octavia and I relate to being influenced in this way. There's a part of me that thinks if I share more of what consumes me, I'll have a better chance at becoming the kind of writer and artist and person I want to be.
Third, is my friend Shannon Garth-Rhodes: who held her first public reading at Room Project in October of last year. She was incredibly nervous and brave to get up in a room full of people and spill her soul through her reading of "Dirty Dog Diary" that day.
I dream of writing like Shannon, too. Gotta start somewhere: here goes.
what consumes me
I've been preoccupied with finding ways to translate Making Room for Abolition, an installation I designed in 2021—a physical, spatial, auditory, artifact-centric show—into a digital space. The higher order question(s) and the underlying motivation behind finding ways to digitize the artifacts in the first place is to explore the utility of design fictions—making fictional media from an imagined world—for advancing abolitionist organizing work. In other words: How can speculation that makes abolitionist futures more tangible and believable help us move toward them together?
This work is becoming—or I'm beginning to acknowledge it as—a storytelling project. Or, to put it in terms I only have the language for thanks to grant applications: it’s a narrative shifting project, a cultural strategy project. I can’t decide yet if it’s a good or bad thing that I only found language that more accurately describes what I think I’m trying to build in the course of ingratiating myself to the nonprofit industrial complex. Time will tell.
It’s a storytelling project whose stories I’m struggling to externalize. So much of it lives in my head and in the artifacts that made up the installation; so little of it is exposed to the folks I want to be able to mold it into action. The fictions embedded in each object in the installation weren't immediately legible to people who saw it IRL, unless they spent considerable time, connected dots on their own, read labels, or talked to me about it. I keep putting off the part where I studiously put forth these fictions into words. I keep reading studies and books on speculative design looking for "methods" and models as I sketch the outlines of an online space and translate the installation’s contents into something that can actually move us toward abolition. All shade, there's very little for me in the literature.
taking my time
Then there’s the part where I also just "need" to make the damn website. As the adage goes, "If it's not on the internet, did it even happen!?" I have tons of documentation that's never seen the light of day. I have hours on hours of audio recordings with incredible Detroiters reacting to the room, talking about their present-day abolitionist work, drawing out meaning in ways I couldn't have articulated myself. I feel like I just need to urgently get it done. "It's been a year and a half already!" The irony of my own preoccupation with time in this situation: making work about futures, work that questions the capitalist insistence that time is scarce and time is money, while battling a (somewhat) self-imposed sense of urgency isn't lost on me. But, I'm resisting anyway.
Watching season 4 of Atlanta—especially the Goofy movie documentary episode, which they threw into (seemingly randomly) the tail end of their final season amid a bunch of brilliant episodes about love, paranoia, Black cultural crazes, and biting cultural critiques of Black icons—has also just been a good reminder that you can, in fact, do whatever the fuck you want, whenever. I'm taking my sweet time.
This project is, in part, about building a framework that can hold together many disparate things—objects, texts, fictions, critiques, sounds—that tell many possible stories about many possible futures and open up provocations about our present world and the pathways that may carry us from abolition today to abolition tomorrow.
The audio recordings mentioned earlier are probably the most exciting part of what I want to share in that digital space: there are five, nearly 2-hour long conversations with farmers, chefs, educators, water warriors, organizers, and others. While I refuse to say I'm starting a "podcast” in the year of our Lord 2023, I am interested in storytelling, and some of the best stories are told orally. So, I'm making... something else: Audio stories? Oral futures? Mashups that qualitatively connect threads from these folks' remarks to short fictions that expose parts of the worldbuilding behind the installation, and some narration to connect the dots.
I truly don't know what I'm doing, but again, I'm standing firm in our ability, especially creatively, to do whatever we want. I'm reminded of the way S.R. Toliver completely rejects prevailing qualitative research methods in Recovering Black Storytelling in Qualitative Research: Endarkened Storywork, a book I'm halfway through right now. She wrote an entire book documenting her research findings as a science fiction novel. I'm not really sure what to make of it yet, but again, she reminds me: You can, in fact, do whatever the fuck you want.
distributed friends and decentralized storytelling
I'm finding more clarity and direction from sources beyond design discourse—unsurprising but worth noting. I'm part of a tiny group of Black artists, organizers, revolutionaries, etc. lovingly dubbed "someplace like Home: a sousou for time and attention." The circumstances of our initial introduction to each other were, let's just say, less than ideal—but I'm so grateful for what has emerged from and been cultivated within this group, all of us situated roughly in the middle western part of the US and Canada. We'd been on pause for a few months, but in the angst of expanding this body of work, I really needed some time and attention. When we gathered, they reminded me of some things: first, and foremost, how important it is to get out of my little bubble while I make work.
Duaba reminded me that this—whatever it is I'm trying to do—is a thing Black folks do:
"...a form of technology that...Black folks developed and cultivated expertise in is the story and everyone uses stories as a form of technology to enact their political will in the cultures they’re part of."
Sally reminded me that her brilliant thesis on demolition and erasure in Canada—Memory Walks of the "Ungeographic: The Demolition of Black History"—was structured as a non-linear story. There's a precedence for what I'm trying to accomplish.
I take most of my notes in Obsidian, a markdown-based text editing software that allows you to organize files non-linearly. My favorite part is that you can see your notes visually, as nodes in an infinitely linked and backlinked network map, based on the relationships you embed within each file's markdown. Exhibit A 😍
This quality of non-linearity and decentralized-ness is what I'm hoping to cultivate in the digital archive that will hold Making Room for Abolition. I'm grateful for friends like Sally who remind you that things have been done before and that maybe you've been doing it all along. I keep returning, also, to this stunning website as inspiration, "Animals as Objects?" which operates as a “relational database,” nesting materials within stories within themes in an architecture we rarely see websites construct.
I'm drawn to a notion of decentralized storytelling while also being terrified of it: relinquishing control over the course of the project, over the narratives that compose these alternate worlds. But it feels promising in a way that nothing I've found in speculative design discourse is:
Telling stories across multiple media is a strategy to make sure that your ideas become like a rhizome—they become sticky, and accessible to many generations. You have to make sure you can distill your information into a clear abstraction, and then embed it in as many ways as you can.
Yes, sticky stories, embedded stories, stories that span generations.
As I read about decentralized storytelling, I'm also reminded of the work of Nicole Mitchell Gantt, the author of a text I encountered when commissioned to design a book with my dear friend Kizzy over the last couple years. The Mandorla Letters is many things: It's academic writing about racial inequity interspersed with a fiction about a world called Mandorla, letters from characters in that world, their journal entries, poems by Nicole, emails between Nicole and friends throughout the uprisings of 2020, and more. Nicole is a composer and flutist, though, and Mandorla is also a place she explores sonically in her Sun Ra-esque orchestral performances. It's a years' long world-building endeavor; it's many decentralized stories made by many decentralized modes of expression.
maybe i’m from the future
A couple months ago I found this beautiful, worn but good condition—giant, like really huge—flat file on the only good thing to come out of the Meta empire: Facebook Marketplace. I really needed a flat file. This is a lie, but it was a STEAL: a couple hundred bucks for this beauty with ten, 50x40" drawers and a base in this day and age? Are you KIDDING ME? They're flipping flat files half this size for $2,000 on Etsy everyday. So, I bought it. I bought the behemoth flat file. I knew it would dwarf every other item of furniture in my apartment. It did. It does. It's ridiculous. Don't ask me how we got it through the snow, up the stairs to my second floor flat.
In my defense, it makes perfect sense two years from now, when I'll have a co-operatively owned studio space or a bigger house. And, even though I don't have enough work right now to fill all ten drawers, by then, I surely will.
I'll grow into it.
I think that's what I'm realizing about this work of translating the installation into something more enduring and accessible, too: I'll grow into it. While I do need to get started, to make sense of what I have, to find ways to externalize the stories embedded in each object, to find ways to invite people in to expound on those stories, I don't need to finish it in order to start it. It doesn't all have to be here from jump in order for it to make sense. Right? Right. At least, this is how I'm justifying this big ass flat file I now use as a standing desk in my living room and other ill-advised purchases that will go unnamed.
i don’t know what i’m doing but here’s what i’m doing
Making these decentralized stories has put me back in my qualitative research bag. Aside from the horrors of listening to my own recorded voice for hours on end while transcribing, it's been like an enjoyably affirming months-long scavenger hunt. The only exception is the parts where I start panicking because I feel like I've completely forgotten how to do qualitative research, something I used to do all the time: a minor identity crisis, if you will. I spent the last month or so coding all five conversations we held at Making Room for Abolition and looking for threads that connect them so I can string together more interesting "oral futures" (not podcasts) that draw clips from multiple conversations and recompose them into narrated stories.
It's slow-going, but I'm finding patterns in each conversation that revolve around two things: First, the carceral fictions we adopt—beliefs and conditioning about punishment and imprisonment and policing that aren't necessarily "true" but we're taught and accept and construct our worlds around them as if they are. And, what I'm calling "Abolitionist Realities," beliefs, relationalities, and responsibilities we might need to practice in order to decondition ourselves and construct a world that can more widely enable and support abolitionist ecosystems. Pitting carceral fictions against Abolitionist Realities is my way of trolling the carceral framing that treats anything other than more police, more prisons, and more surveillance as a Pollyannish path to anarchy.
Coincidentally, I'm also helping the Metro Detroit Restorative Justice Network with a study about safety, accountability and harm. In December, I had the pleasure of interviewing—one of my all time favorite things to do—ten Detroiters about their experiences with harm, who they rely on for support, what constitutes accountability, and how they do and don't rely on police when harm does occur.
It's a bit of a balancing act, shifting back and forth between these practices of coding conversations where we muse about fictions and imagination and time and dreams and then interviewing folks about very real, unsettling, violent, life-changing harm and the non-existent systems of support to address them. But, the balance is oddly grounding. Maybe because both types of conversations expose the failures of the systems we have at our disposal for handling the harms people experience today. Maybe because both contain glimpses of hope, self-determination, and other ways of being, even if folks are skeptical or have foundational questions about how.
In the spirit of art imitating life and life imitating art, I’ve also spent the last seven months or so navigating a situation of community-wide harm with a group of other incredible people. Our collective attempt to call in a serial abuser and his enablers went largely unmet by the institutions and leaders who have the authority to interrupt this pattern of behavior and, more importantly, the culture that allows it. I watched way too many influential Black elders show their asses. In a way, I'm grateful for the clarity, at least now we know who we're dealing with. More than anything, though, it's disappointing, devastating, to lose faith in people you once looked up to. There's a grief that won't settle. There's anxiety that resurfaces and morphs into something new that escapes definition any time we're called back into a space with folks who are newly airing their own grievances.
Detroit was the first place I ever moved just because I wanted to. Not for a job, not for school. I moved here because I knew I had a lot to learn and felt compelled to live and study in the midst of a city filled with so much historical and ongoing radical Black thought and action. It feels odd to acknowledge, then, how deeply disappointed I am by that very community in my fourth year here. I don’t have a happy “ending” to report, either. We’re still navigating this work. I’m still imagining abolitionist worlds.
If there is a takeaway, maybe it’s to remind myself—in the vein of decentralized, distributed, non-linear storytelling—that the path to an abolitionist ecosystem isn’t going to be a linear one. It’s going to involve us stumbling toward strategies for addressing harm, being disappointed by folks we expect to support us, breaking ranks, and formulating the cultural contexts that create the conditions for abolition ourselves. If that’s the case, why shouldn’t the stories that take us there reflect that complexity? Why shouldn’t they take time?
regular degular updates
If you didn't know, I've been freelancing since I left my teaching job in 2021. By some act of God and a string of well-kept, fortuitous relationships with colleagues and collaborators from years past who brought me most of the work I've found as a freelancer and, now—artist?—I've stayed busy. This is supposed to be a good thing. I can assure you that although I'm grateful for the consistent income and lessons learned, I am extremely tired of being booked and busy. I'm not taking on new work for the foreseeable future and am actively trying to do less all the time everyday.
You can peep the index on my website to see what I've been making and with whom, but here are some highlights from the last year and a half.
I had my first ever (!) show in October of 2021.
🟣 Making Room for Abolition opened as part of the Monolith show at Red Bull Arts in Detroit (RIP), featuring work I made as the inaugural DJC Artist-in-Residence.
📚 I made books on books on books over the last two years.
For Room Project, Green Lantern, the research committee of Green Light Black Futures coalition, and my friend Cyrah’s “Our Craft of Care” curatorial project.
🤯 I received a truly wild award out of the blue.
🐎 I had my first solo show, Wake Work*, in 2022.
I tried screen printing, weaving images, and making 3D printed ceramics as part of a residency and my first ever (!) solo show at the Jacob Lawrence Gallery at the University of Washington. Here’s a process reel if you’re into it.
what's coming up
A Room Object is Born
On January 27 at 7PM and February 11 at 2PM, Room Project is holding readings from Room Object, a book I had the extreme pleasure of designing last year. If you’re in Detroit, come through.
I'll be back in the virtual "classroom" with students in Type Electives' Provoking Type course, lecturing about how incessantly white and capital-obsessed the design canon is. Registration is already closed, but they have a bunch of other dope courses coming up that are worth checking out if you're into type design, too.
If you made it this far, God bless you? I'm sorry? I'm not sure how long this experiment will last, might be a "felt cute, might delete later" moment. But, thanks for journeying with me this far. Sign up if you want to subject yourself to more of this in the future.
I was today years old when the Substack grammar editor taught me it was “one and the same,” not “one in the same.”