Four Questions To Ask Before Imagining The Future
by Darryl Ratcliff
The world has shifted with the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States of America. White nationalist groups are elated, immigrants and people of color are scared, hate crimes are up, and no one knows exactly where the future will lead. In fact, it is the Future, more than ever that has become the topic of conversation. For some, the failure to stop the rise of Trump was a failure of the left to imagine a future that was sufficiently captivating to poor, rural, and suburban whites. For others, the election of Trump was the confirmation of a country who has always failed to imagine a future that fully and equally includes women, blacks, latinos, gays and lesbians, and religious minorities. For still others, the election of Trump was the fulfillment of a project of imagining that would legitimize and centralize their white nationalist viewpoint. Regardless, this ability to imagine the future and how our imagined future directly impact our present is more vital and contested than ever.
The weekend after the election I attended a four-day convening called New Cities, Future Ruins: a four-year curatorial initiative inviting artists, designers, and thinkers to re-imagine and engage the extreme urbanism of the American Western Sunbelt led by artistic director Gavin Kroeber. The founding partners in the initiative are the SMU Meadows School for the Arts, which hosted the Dallas convening, ASU Gammage, and UTEP Rubin Center for the Visual Arts. The convening included lectures, performances, and art installations at the SMU Meadows School for the Arts and across various neighborhoods in the city. By the second day of the conference I could not stop thinking about the question: Who gets to imagine the future? By the end of the conference, during the reflection period, cultural activist Roberto Bedoya invoked scholar George Lipsitz’s white spatial imaginary, and I jotted down four questions around imagination that feel worthy of exploration: Do we have the capacity to imagine the future? Do we have the courage to imagine the future? Do we have the consistency to imagine the future? Do we have the care to imagine the future?
Do we have the capacity to imagine the future?
One of the problems with imagining the future is who gets to imagine the future. Often projects like New Cities are initiated by structural institutions such as universities, museums, cities, foundations, and think tanks that often reflect and perpetuate the existing societal structures they claim to want to dismantle – namely white supremacy, cissexism, sexism, and homophobia. Even if the institutions are not explicitly racist, sexist, or homophobic – their leadership structures are often devoid of people of color, women, and queer people. If the project of the Left is to imagine a future for everyone, do institutions that do not reflect that future have the capacity to imagine it? If everyone comes from similar educational privilege or class privilege will there be blind spots when it comes to the poor, the homeless, the working class, people without college education? Do straight men have the capacity to imagine a future for queer women? Do 2nd and 3rd generation Americans have the capacity to imagine a future for the undocumented?
There were moments in the convening that modeled what cultivating this capacity looks like, namely the performance of The La-a Consortium by Autumn Knight at the MAC. Knight was joined by Dallas based artists Iv Amenti, Dave Herman, Lauren Woods, and RonAmber Deloney on stage for an imaginary funding meeting where each artist led community organizations with ethnic names. Knight had them come up with proposals ranging from moving the Trinity River just because (Woods), re-intrification as the antidote to gentrification (Amenti), random cussin and church fillabustin (Deloney), and extracurricular encouragement of identity (Herman). Knight then subverted the norms of meeting procedure by having the artists communicate with side eye, shoulder shakes, arching their backs, and saying “aaaayyyyyee” for consent. It was a subtle but powerful reminder of how white supremacy seeps into even the smallest everyday gestures of our professional interactions. At the end of the meeting Knight funded everyone, there will be no pitting of organizations of color against each other in her imaginary future.
However, in other regards New Cities, Future Ruins did not exhibit this capacity – there was a lack of queer leadership, female leadership, indigenous representation, and bilingual content. The last, particularly in the context of the thematics on Western Sunbelt and its large Latino/Hispanic population seems like a significant oversight. When we recklessly engage in imagining the future for people who are not granted equal voice, agency, and power in the imagining process it is not justice but an act of violence, erasure – a future crime.
Do we have the courage to imagine the future?
Imagining a just future can be frightening – for some it will mean losing power, and for others it will mean gaining agency and responsibility for their own lives. There was a performance of Post-Gentrification by Aaron Landsman that included Dallas based artists Francisco Moreno and Giovanni Valderas, gallerist Erin Cluley, art nonprofit director Rachel Rogerson, arts writer Lauren Smart, and city arts commissioner Ariel Saldivar. The panel was striking for its acknowledgement of how artists and the arts are helping gentrification happen, particularly in places like the Cedars and West Dallas where 300 families may lose their homes. This is a significant step as many artists and gallerists across the country still won’t even acknowledge their culpability in the displacement process. However, when confronted with the hard choice of doing something different with their current artistic practice, gallery space, or non-profit art space in order to help stem the displacement of poor and working class people – most people on the panel argued for doing nothing.
This is nothing new – Dallas has been segregated geographically and socioeconomically for generations. Presenters Clyde Valentin, Director of Ignite Arts Dallas and Brent Brown, Director of bcWorkshop both did a great job of illustrating how this spatially plays out in Dallas, TX – which is one of the most segregated cities in the country, has the highest rate of childhood poverty in the country, and is the site of past and current environmental injustices. Banks, government, faith communities, universities, and philanthropy have, for the most part, not had the courage to imagine a future where this is not the case. Many of us complain about the systemic institutional failures that have directly led to our inequitable present. Yet, many of us work for those same institutions. If you are working for a university, a nonprofit, a museum, a government office, a corporation – do you have the courage to imagine the future? Can we be radical from inside an institution? How do we show up and speak out for the future when doing so can jeopardize our ability to provide for ourselves and our families? And if our positions and positionality prevent us from doing this, do we have the courage to center, amplify, and support the non-institutional voices that are courageously imagining the future?
Perhaps Landsman should have changed the name of the performative panel from Post-Gentrification to Pro-Gentrification; but even if we are able to acknowledge the problems we want to solve in the future, if we do not have the courage to confront them can we truly imagine a future where they don’t exist?
Do we have the consistency to imagine the future?
One of the more admirable aspects of New Cities, Future Ruins is that it is planned to unfold over at least four years. This is important because imagining the future is not an instant action but a process that unfurls over time. In our practices and convenings we often gather once, talk loudly and passionately, and then go home and forget. It takes considerable effort and resources to convene people to imagine the future – and the imagining itself can be exhausting even as it is exhilarating. Are we willing to attempt to reach out and include voices and perspective different than ours, every time? Are we willing to check in with each other monthly, quarterly, to continue the process of imagining the future? Do we have the mechanisms available to adapt our imaginings as the present unfolds?
Also, how do we acknowledge those who have been consistently imagining the future before us? Who are still imagining the future? How do we include and learn from older generations of activists, artists, organizers, community members, and educators? The always amazing Guillermo Gomez-Pena had a moment in his performance of Notes from Technophobia 3.0 at the MAC where he said, “I feel like an arctic wolf who went to sleep and awoke on top a Manhattan skyscraper.” And I think about how much trauma that line contains and how much trauma the vulnerable in our communities carry. Do we have the consistency to decenter ourselves, and our institutions, to consistently acknowledge and deal with this trauma? Can we imagine the future together without consistently processing our individual and collective traumas?
Do we have the care to imagine the future?
One of my favorite quotes is by Assata Shakur, “It is our duty to fight for our freedom. It is our duty to win. We must love each other and support each other. We have nothing to lose but our chains.” Perhaps the most elusive part of the quote is that we must love and support each other – we must exhibit care. Imagining the future is contentious – none of us have the exact same vision of the future. Our visions of the future are often personal and passionate – can we have care with how we share our visions, how we relate to others engaging in this important project with us? When we are crafting projects that imagine the future, when we invite people in, will we treat them with care? Will we consider the needs and realities of people who are different than ourselves? Will we try to dominate the conversation or seek to amplify voices that are quieter than ours? Can we avoid becoming the visionary artist, activist, educator who does not treat the people closest to them well.
I also wonder whether larger institutions such as municipal governments and universities have the care to imagine the future? Teddy Cruz and Fonna Forman called for creating “a new citizenship culture”, greater public infrastructure, and creatives mediating between the bottom up and top down. They also asked for zoning to be generative and not punitive. In Dallas, TX there have been recent attempts to zone out of existence everything from free little libraries, alternative art spaces, and outdoor bar patios. Sometimes it feels that everything that might lead the Dallas towards a more diverse, vibrant future, gets squashed by city government. This perhaps is a way that local government can demonstrate care – by reflecting on how policies such as zoning, code compliance, affordable housing, and law enforcement affect all its citizens. Perhaps care is becoming more flexible, more nuanced, and less draconian – perhaps care is realizing that there are multiple motivations beside profit for citizens to build and organize.
Even when we have the capacity to bring new voices into the process, the courage to listen and act on our imagining, and the commitment to do it consistently – even then it can quickly fall apart when we do not treat our partners and our communities with care. One of the failures of the New Cities, Future Ruins convening were the artist installations in the historically black neighborhood of Jubilee Park in East Dallas adjacent to Fair Park. Although these projects were planned months in advance, the neighbors were not informed that installations would be going up in their neighborhood until the week of the convening. There was also a lack of communication that a couple of hundred art professionals, most of whom were complete outsiders, who would be bused in to admire the art installations, the community center, and bcWorkshops Congo Street Initiative in Jubilee Park. Particularly troubling to the residents was the work by artist Caitlin Berrigan, Treastise on Imaginary Explosions Vol. 1, which featured signs that mimic real estate signs, handwritten with bright neon colors, that were installed inside the neighborhood the evening of Election Day. As the worst fears of vulnerable communities across the country were being realized, Berrigan’s signs with text such as “The rage was there before the apocalypse arrived, the rage was there before the apocalypse” were very disorienting and traumatic for some residents. Ben Leal, the CEO of Jubilee Park and Community reported receiving many calls from residents that night and in the following days with questions like “Why is this art in my neighborhood? Why is my home a tourist site? Why are these people in my neighborhood?” Houston based environmental justice artist Bryan Parra said it best during the reflection period, “If you came to my community, I would be suspicious too.”
When we are not able to imagine the future with care, we often get the opposite results of our intentions. Yet, the value of consistency is that we can acknowledge and learn from our mistakes, which Kroeber had already done, and continue to work towards creating a more ethical and just spatial imaginary.
Imagining the future is perhaps the most important and most difficult thing we can do right now. If we can’t imagine the future, the future we desire will not exist – and what more profound and vital role for artists is there than to imagine the future. There will never be just one collective future, but multiple contested futures. However, hopefully as we increase our capacity to imagine the future, if we commit to imagining consistently, courageously, and with great care – we will finally be able to conceive and bring to fruition a future rooted in justice and equality for all.
Darryl Ratcliff is a social practice artist based in Dallas, TX. In 2012, Ratcliff cofounded Ash Studios with artist Fred Villanueva, a 20,000 square foot DIY arts center serving communities of color in Dallas. In 2013, Ratcliff became the inaugural artist-in-residence for Rick Lowe’s Trans.lation Vickery Meadow initiated by the Nasher Sculpture Center. In 2014, Ratcliff initiated Creating Our Future, an art project that focuses on creativity and civic engagement and registered over a hundred millenials to vote for the 2015 city council elections. Currently Ratcliff is working with his art collective, Michelada Think Tank, to create pathways for creatives of color from high school to retirement in the City of Dallas. Ratcliff is also a recent recipient of artist awards from the Dallas Museum of Art, Nasher Sculpture Center, and Office of Cultural Affairs.