Ohio State-funded group and Detroit artist collective aim for creative responses and solutions to societal ills

Livable Futures is in startup phase, so co-creator Norah Zuniga Shaw is still working on the language to best describe the group, which received funding in 2018 through Discovery Themes, an initiative of Ohio State University that she said is designed to take on “seemingly insurmountable problems — those grand challenges like climate change and food security.”

To tackle those global issues, Zuniga Shaw and others formed Livable Futures, a grassroots network of more than 30 artists, activists, students and faculty scholars. “We’re working together to invent and also hopefully foster creative responses, and maybe even solutions, but certainly creative responses to what we experience and what we feel are planetary conditions of crisis,” she said. “Probably what anybody can agree on is it's a time of enormous uncertainty and change and stress and division. And so I think our goal is to bring our full creative capacities to bear on current conditions, and to do that in a way that has integrity, and share it with broader communities.”

Zuniga Shaw, who has a joint appointment at OSU between the Department of Dance and the Advanced Computing Center for the Arts in Design (ACCAD), grew up in an activist family and is a working artist, which makes Livable Futures the perfect marriage of her passions. “Livable Futures is inspired in part by the work of adrienne maree brown [author of Emergent Strategy] and others who are calling for new approaches to social justice and ecological activism that offer alternatives to the established rhetoric of doom and gloom, which tends to create apathy and inaction,” Shaw wrote in a follow-up email. “If our imaginations are filled only with the apocalypse, how can we possibly generate alternative visions for more livable futures? We need breakthroughs and creative leaps of the imagination, and we need each other.”

Livable Futures engages with the community through free workshops, performances, blogs, podcasts and more. Zuniga Shaw is also always on the lookout for groups that are leading the way in terms of “positive, meaningfully engaged work,” and in her search, she came across a Detroit-based artist group called Complex Movements. 

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“[Complex Movements] is a shining example of everything that we're seeking to foster,” Zuniga Shaw said. “They always work directly with communities to develop their work, but also to develop new strategies for organizing around social justice issues. And they're doing that through interactive media and animation and music and these rich architectural environments and meaningful, facilitated community dialogue.”

One Complex Movements project, “Beware of the Dandelions,” is a mobile art installation that's part performance, part workshop space and part visual arts exhibition. It’s described this way on the group’s website: “The piece intersects disciplines including community organizing, design, hip-hop and electronic music, architecture and theater. The experience occurs inside a 400-square-foot polyhedron dome-like pod structure.”

“‘Beware of the Dandelions’ focused on social and environmental justice themes and mapping resilience,” Zuniga Shaw said. “Right now they're working on a new piece that's focusing on issues of spatial justice, both in terms of city development and real estate, but also the prison industrial complex.”

To further Complex Movement’s work on the new project, Livable Futures is bringing the collective to ACCAD for a creative residency from Oct. 27 to Nov. 3. “We're supporting their work,” Zuniga Shaw said. “All of the faculty and student researchers at ACCAD will be focused on whatever Complex Movements needs that week. So that's a bunch of people who do interactive theater technology and animation and all kinds of 3D work.”

Before Complex Movements arrives, Livable Futures is hosting a “Reading Room” at ACCAD on Friday, Oct. 25, where attendees can eat pizza, watch a short film about “Beware of the Dandelions” and discuss adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy, which features a chapter on the work of Complex Movements. Then, on Friday, Nov. 1, Livable Futures will host a public dialogue with Complex Movements in Sullivant Hall’s Barnett Theatre, where attendees can speak with the group about its work. (Both events are free but RSVPs are requested.)

At the heart of all these groups and projects and events is the concept of collaboration. “When we work together in a sustained way over time,” Zuniga Shaw said, “we can discover things together that we really couldn't do on our own.”