A video work, interactive world, and live program that aired at Abrons Arts Center on December 11, 2020, Antidote considers the liberatory capacities of movement. Utilizing motion capture software to explore its relationships to embodiment and spirituality, choreographer Marguerite Hemmings and new media artist LaJuné McMillian enact a healing of bodies, lands, and movements inside virtual reality technology.
Antidote features a sound score by Rena Anakwe, and is framed by a virtual land acknowledgment authored by Hemmings, McMillian, creative technologist Salome Asega, and Afro Indigenous activist Amber Starks (aka Melanin Mvskoke). Together, they address the colonial contexts that frame human relationships to both land and cyberspace.
On November 30, 2020, the four participants met over Zoom, and were joined by Ali Rosa-Salas, Director of Programming at Abrons Arts Center. They discussed the project and their land acknowledgment. The transcript is below, condensed and edited for clarity.
LaJuné and Marguerite, what is Antidote?
We're working at this intersection of multiple technologies—so, looking at motion capture technology, virtual reality technologies, and our own physical, spiritual, and ancestral technologies, inside of our black freedom realities. We're really interested in tapping into worlds where our bodies and our ancestors' bodies felt free, where our ancestors embodied their own freedom, or just took their own freedom. And we're trying to project these freedom realities and these freedom technologies into digital space. We've been sourcing from our meetings, our rituals, our dreams, our discussions and prompts that we give each other. We will share a version of this work on December 11th, in video form, and also in more of an interactive space on Mozilla Hubs. In the future, we'll be working with some students at University Neighborhood High School, located on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. And for me and LaJuné, working on this iteration of Antidote has been a chance for us to embody what we even mean by black freedom realities, tune into our roles as stewards of these realities, and get specific about what we're tapping into in order to see what those realities are.
Yeah yeah. And I guess I wanted to add that what we're also projecting through virtual space is us tapping into different frameworks—we're interested in what frameworks are and how they exist outside of oppression, outside of white supremacy, and outside of any systems of harm.
What do those frameworks consist of and how we can visualize that within virtual spaces? So I think that when I'm working in traditional motion capture spaces, the way that we develop movements is mainly just sitting down and writing down what movements are. But through this process, we've challenged ourselves to tap into movements from a different space: from our inner source to our spiritual selves. And I think that we also have been interested in what it means to develop the framework of how we work with one another. For me, I plan to use this process with any collaborator or collaborators that I work with in the future. What does it mean to fully connect to someone else, even though we're not in the same physical space?
I want to clarify that this virtual presentation Antidote is Part One of a larger project; it is a research phase for a work that we're developing in collaboration with students at University Neighborhood High School. Marguerite and LaJuné will work with highschoolers to develop a live performance that engages the concepts of the work, which will premiere at Abrons in late 2021. But I’m wondering if we can just backtrack and speak about what technology means to us personally. How would we define that word? And then maybe more specifically, how does “technology” as we define it relate to the spiritual and ancestral knowledge systems that are informing the Antidote project, and the land acknowledgement [that’s featured in it]?
Well, maybe I can just add a layer to the question, just based on things I've heard LaJuné and Marguerite talk about, about ritual as being a technique or a framework for reaching specific ancestors. But there is a ritual of just even the two of you wearing these mo-cap suits and sharing data back and forth and experimenting with movement vocabulary. That in itself is a ritual. It's a repeated, sacred practice that the two of you hold together. And I'm curious then, how does this ritual act as a technology to open up these portals to reach the ancestors?
Anthropology speaks to technology as human culture, as part of human culture, [what we pass down], how we pass down, who we are, our rituals, our beliefs, and a way to also just further our ideas and belief systems—technology as an intricate part of what makes us "human.” And so, I can see Antidote through that lens, as not only what we pass down to our future generations as a starting point, but also that this project is supposed to highlight ancestors through space and time, that we all exist at the same time, and that this is their legacy. And I took a lot of that into consideration when I was writing the land acknowledgement, that it will transcend wherever we are, wherever our ancestors are, wherever our descendants are. This space always existed as this refuge for black people specifically. And so I think that understanding this technology as a form of culture is really important, at least from my perspective.
Yeah, and it feels like with Antidote we're also activating a technology that tries to pinpoint and re-locate our lineages, legacies, and inheritances. How do we get out of this framework that we're in, this white supremacist, imperialist framework? Through ritual we’ve been finding ways to tap into what's indigenous to our bodies, re-activating technologies that we've used throughout our lives and the lives before us.
I think for me, coming from, I guess, a digital media background, where we just learned all different types of digital tools, it was always given to us as like, these are the only technologies, or these are the technologies that hold power. But also what I've been really interested in is how even white supremacy can act as a technology or as a tool. How do these systems reinforce the ways we see ourselves, the way that we see one another, the ways in which we communicate to one another? Basically, my thesis is that as we get more in touch with our embodied technologies—the technologies that we are basically given at birth—if we dive into those, how can they prove to be a framework for the abolition of other technologies? How can we use those to protect ourselves, to protect each other, and to communicate? I feel like we're given these frameworks that are deeply problematic in a lot of ways. So what does it mean to tear it up and just break it all down?
Yeah. What I love about this collaboration too, what’s also being activated is a technology of care with each other. There's this learning together as we go, and really honoring whatever comes up and out, and then mapping that, studying that. I think it's very gracious.
I think that what you mentioned, Marguerite, about remembering or acknowledging, and grace, is actually a great segue into speaking about the land acknowledgment. Salome, when we invited you to come on as a collaborator for Antidote, you initiated the conversation about integrating a land acknowledgment as part of the work. Can you share how you came to draw this connection between virtual reality and land acknowledgement?
Yeah, I think LaJuné and Marguerite were talking about building a world and building a place that existed across time, but felt like there was land. I remember early sketches of people on land moving through space. And I think one of the first questions I asked you all was, "Who is this world for?" And you were very clear in saying that you were building a world for each other and for black friends. And then we moved into a conversation about how to protect that space. I think we had a conversation about how black creativity is consumed online. Like the way we move, the way we dance, the way we talk. Our lives are consumed online. Our death goes viral online. And so, we were talking about stewardship, and that there needs to be some acknowledgement that the space they're entering—even though it is virtual—is a sacred space. So, I just thought of a land acknowledgement, but we wanted to do that with someone who identifies as indigenous, because it’s a serious practice, so we wanted to do that and learn from someone. And then Amber came in.
I would love to speak more to land acknowledgement. What does it mean? What does it do? What are its limitations? What are the opportunities it presents?
I think land acknowledgements first recognize that indigenous people still exist, and not just in the context of the US, but globally. At the heart of them, I think settler, colonial projects were [meant] to destroy and forget indigenous people. And so I think in a lot of my online work with other indigenous people or just in community, one of the things I always say is, "I see you." And for me, the land acknowledgement is that saying: I see you, I still recognize your humanity, I recognize your sovereignty, the right to self-governance, the right to exist in a world that has been about our destruction.
And so I think land acknowledgements also are a call to action. Not only are they to recognize that this land is the inheritance of whoever has been stewarding, but it also means that for those who don't recognize as indigenous the land that they are on, respect that this is a movement to give back the land. Because a land acknowledgement just saying "I see you" is only half of the battle, if you want to call it that. So I think for me, land acknowledgements recognize us as indigenous people, and also then de-authenticate white supremacy, settler colonialism.
And then on top of that, racial predatory capitalism, because those three are a triad. I don't think you can mention one without the other two, because those all inform one another and they work together to continue settler projects, and to reinforce them. And I think that by calling out the name of the peoples whose inheritance is that land, we understand we have a responsibility to dismantle these systems that don’t necessarily keep us from, but restrict our ability to be able to be back in relationship with our ancestral lands. And with that, our relationships to our ancestors who are in the ground, our ancestors who all these buildings are built on top of. Even when we knock down trees, our ancestors' bodies hope that tree will grow. So it's not even just the ground, it's the things that grow from it. Those are our relatives. And so land acknowledgement should be about respecting the relationship that indigenous people have to our ancestors through the land. And so, I think that, that's what it means for me.
I wanted to ask a follow-up question, if that's okay with everyone else. I wanted to hear directly about the relationship between blackness and indigeneity with regards to the land acknowledgement. In this work, how are we considering the interconnected histories and traumas of US American Slavery and the genocide of Indigenous peoples of Turtle Island?
I think again, from the beginning, I want to say that black Africans and those of us who are descendants of those peoples are indigenous to Africa. For those of us who have been here for generations, unfortunately, that relationship to our lands and to our people has been severed. And in a lot of ways we're trying to find our way back home. In my work, I even speak to being a reconnecting native, as it only takes one or two generations for that severed relationship to happen. And so for me as an Afro-indigenous woman who comes from both worlds, I feel like I'm walking back home in two places simultaneously, but my way back home is like through the ocean, and I get lost in all that water. I can't find my people. Some of them are at the bottom. I don't ever want black folks of the diaspora to lose our connection to home, even if we don't know our people's names, even if we don't know what they look like. And I think in crafting the land acknowledgement, I really wanted to pay tribute to that, that we don't know a lot of their names. We don't know what they look like, but we still can see them. We can still say their name and to the universe or the void, or even an anecdote just by acknowledging that they existed. So I think that my intersectionality connects me to us, to maybe some folks who don't have that intersection, but it doesn't mean that non-black natives can't understand indigeneity, and it doesn't mean that non-native black folks or non-black natives can't understand what black folks have lost.
So I think that this space provides... and we talked about this, about what maroon spaces were. When enslaved folks ran away from the plantations, they didn't know where they were going. They didn't know what was next, but these spaces on indigenous land created a haven away from the terror of enslavement and white supremacy, and even settler colonialism. I'm a product of black folks and native folks getting together and resisting. That's really beautiful to me as an Afro-indigenous person. But I feel like even our ancestors, they didn't necessarily create families and have children. There's a lot of examples where black and native folks on this land resisted and fought and their resilience is also our inheritance. So I think that this project does that in a lot of ways. Like for me, at least, it speaks to those really sacred maroon spaces where we were able to create and live and realize freedom, even as this colonial project, this enslavement project was going on for hundreds of years. We were still thriving, we were still being black, we were still being indigenous. And I feel like that's what’s connecting me to this. When I spoke to LaJuné and Marguerite about it, I just thought it was really beautiful, because I think it personified what I feel like I'm trying to do in my own work, which is to tie how black liberation and indigenous sovereignty are linked under this system.
Salome, could you maybe speak a little bit to the application of land acknowledgement in virtual reality, and maybe some particular conversations you all have been having about the colonial dimensions of cyberspace?
Totally. So, I was thinking very deeply about who coined the term digital colonialism, and thinking about the internet as a place, a digital space as a place, and thinking about the ways...that we're just not protected and cared for online. And so how do we foster communities of care? I loved so much what Amber said about land acknowledgement being active, because I feel like our participation online is also meant to be active. We shouldn't be passively consuming what is fed to us or fed to us through our algorithmically-defined streams. And so there's a literacy we need to build, but there's also a care we need to build for how we exist online.
Can I also say, I think LaJuné brought up a really interesting point, and we even spoke about this in one of our meetings. These digital worlds are often segregated or meant for white supremacy, maybe not directly, but even when I think about AI and how these programs are often very white, and facial recognition software often paints black and brown folks as criminals automatically. So we're writing our racism and our prejudice into these systems that are meant to better us. But I think they show us who we really are. They expose, again, the systems of oppression for what they really are. And so I think that having spaces for black, and Indigenous, and other people of color built or created or curated by BIPOC folks is a threat to that content. Anything we do as BIPOC is a threat to these systems and it should be. It's okay that we're threatening these hierarchies. It's okay that we're threatening these systems of destruction and terror. And so I think that in writing the land acknowledgement, I didn't even want it necessarily to just be about Antidote. I wanted us to understand that no matter what plane of existence we are on, whether it's on Antidote, or if we're on Instagram, or if we're in real life, the truth will always be. It will always be the truth whether I'm speaking it on Antidote, or that I'm speaking it about Portland, Oregon where I live, whether it's about Hawaii. It has to be real, no matter which plane we're on.
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