How might we re-imagine political power?
I somehow get to spend this year investigating this question with an intimate cohort of artists, professors, dancers, scientists, technologists, activists, and philosophers, as a Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Political Power Fellow. YBCA is a multi-disciplinary contemporary arts center in San Francisco believes that culture is an essential catalyst for change and seeks to spur and support societal movement. The purpose of the Fellowship is to drive new possibilities into the public imagination through art, bringing together futurist philosophy, speculative design, and experimentation. My design work answers questions; my art (and this fellowship) asks them. Here is the fever-dream style essay I wrote just before the midnight deadline, to ask for a seat in this conversation:
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Before considering how to re-imagine political power, we must understand why this reimagination is necessary. I believe there are four needs that beg the reimagination of political power:
- To fortify vulnerable democracy
- To get money out of politics
- To include women and minorities
- To create better futures through a political process that matches our time in its pace and creativity
What fascinates me about political power is that, like currencies, it only exists because enough people believe in it. Two of my favorite stories from the story of humans illustrate this.
In indigenous Melanesia, political power had long been established by who had the most resources to gift exchange. During WWII, isolated communities came into abrupt contact with the two most technologically advanced civilizations — Japan and the US, who delivered cargo throughout the pacific via airplane. Islanders believed these people held greater favor with gods because of this cargo. Island political power was overthrown by leaders of ‘cargo cults’ who built straw airplanes and coconut radios as acts of worship. Here technology destabilized political power through beliefs.
A thousand years earlier, Mayan political power crumbled when citizens facing a hundred year drought stopped believing in the power of leaders, whose duties included communing with the gods for good rains and harvests. Here environmental destabilized power through beliefs.
If belief matters so much to political power, how do we change what people believe?
My work touches on this question in two ways.
Experiential programs that I design change people’s beliefs about how capable they are of creating change. Net Impact’s programs are available to our grassroots network of 100,000+ university students and young professional in 40+ countries. The programs help them dig into topics like climate change and racial equity, with a focus on solutions and action. This action is often entrepreneurial or political in nature. People often drift into the programs by accident, and exit as determined leaders. The skills I bring from this work to the Fellowship are human centered design, systems thinking, and impact strategy.
Creations that I make aim to alter people’s thoughts by activating their imaginations. For example, I shot a series of portraits where a photo of the subject’s favorite childhood memory was projected onto them and they appeared to be suspended in the air. My hope was to push people to consider how we can become lost in and de-animated by deep memories and nostalgia. I am interested in how media can be harnessed to expand perceptions of possible. Skills I bring from this practice into the Fellowship include videography, digital art and motion graphics, choreography and dance, audio mixing, and over-eagerness.
Challenges encountered in my work complicate the question of political power. How do we connect a single story across geographies when building a movement? Does it corrupt the re-imagining of political power if the conversation involves or is financially supported by historical ‘bad-guys’ who say they want to see the same change?
Finally, here are lingering questions I am energized to explore:
- Who is ‘we’?
- What is political power post US-hegemony?
- How is political power when we leave earth into space?
- What is worth amplifying in the existing power structure?
- What might a more creative and organic policial power process be?
We had an incredible Fellowship kickoff yesterday hearing about afrofuturism from Detroit’s Ingrid LaFleur. I’ve never felt given so much voice and influence to create local change and spark discussion in the public psyche on the timely topic of political power. I’m ready. We’re ready. And there is much work to do.