Durham Art Gallery
Trickster: Refining Right Relationship, Or All That You Touch You Change
Sower, Talents, Teacher, Trickster, Chaos, Clay.
These are the parables that were meant to make up the six-part Earthseed Series authored by Octavia E. Butler. Only the first two parables were completed before Octavia’s untimely death. Durham Art Gallery’s 2021 exhibition year is programmed under the theme of Earthseed and speculates the possibilities of the four unwritten parables.
We are pleased to present Trickster: Refining Right Relationship or, All That You Touch You Change, as the first exploration into the Parables. This essay features the work of Kaya Joan, Laura Joy Pieters, Shamica Ruddock and Whitney French + Lue Palmer that was produced during the 2020 digital residency supported by Durham Art Gallery, Crate Studio + Project Space and Whippersnapper Gallery. Trickster: Refining Right Relationship, or All That You Touch You Change, is a meditation on the pandemic through the central theme of Octavia E. Butler’s unwritten book Parable of the Trickster in relation to adrienne maree brown’s notion of living in right relationship, and the Earthseed principle of Change.
The Earthseed series begins with the Parable of the Sower. In it author Octavia E. Butler introduces a future world eerily similar to the one we live in today. A young woman named Lauren Oya Olamina endeavours to solve some of the deepest rooted issues of her (our) time through a set of guiding principles that she calls Earthseed and practices them in a community of seekers called Acorn. The second book, Parable of the Talents, documents the growth of Acorn alongside a separate powerful, political, religious movement, Lauren’s upturn in fame and the fulfilment of Earthseed’s primary goal: to take root among the stars.
The series begins with the biblical parables and was meant to morph into Earthseed’s own parables. After completing the first two books of the series, Octavia passed away before she could finish it. She intended the unwritten novels to document an escape from the Earthly authorities, imagining the possibilities of a society untethered to its Terran origins and guided by an anti-oppressive set of founding tenets. The series never reached its utopian promise.
Through Octavia’s extensive archive at the Huntington Library, Art Museum and Botanical Gardens in California, scholars and admirers have caught glimpses of the future Earthseed. The next book in the six-part series, Parable of the Trickster, was left in its beginning stages. Octavia’s papers reveal a myriad of tales that explore the potential landing of the Christopher Columbus Starship that carried seeds of Earth, in the form of earthling members of the original Acorn community, to be planted on a mysterious planet in another star system [ 1 ].
One of the Trickster storylines found in the archives reveals a planet that is sentient, responsive, and maybe, has a spirit of its own. In a defensive effort against the new inhabitants, the planet begins to react to the residents, or perhaps the residents begin to react to the planet. The settlers become blind, in one case their vision becomes inhibited by the planet’s atmosphere and in another version they are still blinded but develop more suitable sensorial responses to what living on the new planet may have required.
These are just two examples of the many instances of planetary trickery that unfold in the unfinished narrative. In this parable, the planet itself takes on the role of the trickster. True to the nature of the literary archetype, the trickster has the potential to reveal deep-seated inequities and problems in the Earthseed colony. Octavia explains,
…of course, the people have brought all their human problems from
Earth to complicate the ways in which they deal with the many
problems the planets give them [ 2 ].
As a result of the extra-stellar trials,
…(s)ome [inhabitants] are terrified; many are bored; an increasing
number teeter on the brink of severe psychological crisis; nearly all are deeply unhappy [ 3 ].
This is the toll of the trickster: before the need for systemic change is exposed, there is suffering. But is that suffering attributed to the trickster’s play? Or, do the trickster’s games reveal the opportunities for revelation, right relationship and the need for revolution [ 4, 5 ]?
Might we say that 2020 was the Year of the Trickster? Or perhaps that the Pandemic has trickster-like qualities, both grave and revealing? Emerging from each wave of the pandemic, revelations are made, opportunities for refining right relationship are afforded and the potential for revolution gathers. When read through the lens of the title theme Trickster, Octavia’s potential extraplanetary storylines unveil a possible parable of mutual and reciprocal changes and growth, but not always for the better. It brings us to the central question of the exhibition year: How does one rebuild without a blank slate? In other words, how can we live in right relationship with ourselves, others and the planet given the history that precedes us? And how do we maintain right relationship as things change and open up again?
Laura Joy Pieters summons a trusted group within her community to address these questions and others plaguing her home in England and the globe today. In her four-part podcast series, Laura considers how to live in right relationship within the political sphere, drawing on the listener as an active, social and political being in the age of the coronavirus.
In Project Acorn Bread, Whitney French and Lue Palmer offer up the process but not the recipe for Acorn Bread [ 6 ]. The collaborators came together with community at a safe physical distance to gather nuts, process flour, and bake bread over the time span of a few months. In sharing the process, the artists invite the audience to pay attention and create their own right relationship to land and each other, following not directions but impressions of Whitney and Lue’s trials.
Their collaboration conjures the question: what does it mean to live in right relationship with oneself, others and the planet during a period of significant risk, isolation and inconsistency? With a shared common goal of sustaining one another directly from the land and with the company one keeps, regardless of environment (the acorns were collected in an urban environment by a team of friends and colleagues), Whitney and Lue encourage viewers to come to a recipe of their own making, together. More of a practice than a project, Project Acorn Bread encourages viewers to sustain one another.
As a collective social body, we too face challenges parallel to those of the Earthseed colony. Our bodies have the potential to host harm, both to ourselves and our communities, the indoor and outdoor environments beyond our sanitized in-place shelters have become suspect and inhospitable, we relate to one another over distance, mouths covered, voices raised, and for those who have access, more safely through technological means. We do not touch for fear of spread. When framed this way, our lived experiences of the vast and fast-paced global proliferation of the evolving virus appear to conjure otherworldly images inspired by science fiction.
Despite distance, masks and sanitizer, we are acutely aware that contact with another is contact with another’s biology. Upon these meetings, especially when one faces chronic illness, as Curator Yero Timi-Biu does, might we ask ourselves: Has this interaction affected me on a cellular level [ 7 ]? Has a part of you become a part of me? How has my physiology changed as a result of our meeting? Am I still the same me I was before meeting you? Or, as artist Shamica Ruddock asks in the sound, text, image-based work developed during the residency, Changing Synthia (2020): Am I becoming Synthia or is Synthia Becoming Me? In this case, Lauren Olamina might remind us:
All that you touch
All that you change
The only lasting truth
Is Change [ 8 ].
Starseed (2020), the digital zine by Kaya Joan also considers change as something foundational and ever-present. Through a trilogy of Awakenings the Earthseed mission in Kaya’s future has succeeded, kind of. Kaya introduces a series of unexpected changes that ultimately remind the reader that we are still as we always were. Changed? Yes, but still of this Earth, still a product of lineage, and perhaps still equally accountable to both the past and the future.
Funding shortages, loss of housing and studio space, inability to find, gather, afford or work safely with materials, caring for oneself and others, sick leave, loneliness, fatigue, demotivation, burnout, activism, advocacy and accompliceship… Changes, postponements and cancellations due to “pandemic related reasons” greatly and at times gravely affect artists, creative practitioners, curators, cultural workers and the organizations they work within.
The Durham Art Gallery’s program, like Octavia’s efforts for the Parable of the Trickster, have become multiple and manifold. In response to the changing needs of cultural producers in the face of morphing regulations, in favour of public security and creating networks of support, we have started and restarted repeatedly in order to centre care for those who produce the art we seek. Considered through the lens of the pandemic-as-trickster, might we find the opportunity to refine being in right relationship to oneself, one another and culture as a whole? In meeting this opportunity, we are reminded that change is ongoing and often reciprocal. Therefore we must be especially aware: while many are suffering, how do we collectively care for one in order to support all?
Perhaps, as these digital artworks portray in concert with one another, we refine our ways of being, we adapt, change ourselves, our relationship to one another, our organizations and their relationship to the planet, and maybe, eventually, others as well. For they too will change us.
[ 1 ] Octavia, E. , Butler. Parable of the Talents. New York: Grand Central Publishing. 1998. 406. Parable of the Talents is written from the point of view of the protagonist’s daughter reading her mother’s journals. The book projects the Acorn effort into the future and ends with the partial realization of Earthseed’s central goal, to take root among the stars. However, its realization has been co-opted by the political leaders to become a colonial effort. This is exemplified in the ironic, yet poignant, naming of the spaceship that carries the Earthseed practitioners to their next home, after a horrific colonizer of the United State of America, Christopher Columbus. As found in the end of Parable of the Talents, Lauren writes in her journal: “I object to the name. This ship is not about a shortcut to riches and empire. It’s not about snatching up slaves and gold and presenting them to some European monarch. But one can’t win every battle. One must know which battles to fight. The name is nothing.”
[ 2 ] Gerry Canavan. Octavia E. Butler. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2016.
[ 3 ] OEB 1017 and OEB 1018 and 4522 as sited by Gerry Canavan. Octavia E. Butler. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2016.
[ 4 ] Anupa Mistry. “On Vulnerability, Playfulness, and Keeping Yourself Honest.” adrienne maree brown on vulnerability, playfulness, and keeping yourself honest – The Creative Independent. The Creative Independent , July 17, 2019.
Right Relationship is a term by adrienne maree brown from her book Emergent Strategies (AK Press, 2017). In an interview for The Creative Independent in July 2019, adrienne describes it in this way: “I always make the distinction between “right” versus “right relationship.” So not [just] doing something that’s right for the entire planet in terms of how we’re supposed to be, but having the right kind of relationship to the planet. That is something we can feel our way into, and the most devastating thing on Earth right now is that there’s so many people who’ve been cut off from being able to feel that.”
[ 5 ] We can define these three terms in relation to one another. Let’s consider revelation as the act of coming to know, revolution as the result of the action taken to change what is known, and right relationship as the method by which revolution becomes possible.
[ 6 ] Octavia Butler, 6. The nutrient dense bread made from oak tree seeds is mentioned early in the series. In conversation, Lauren and her father, Rev. Olamina, speak about the importance of knowing one’s environment and the plants therein foreshadowing the future community Lauren will create. Rev. Olamina explains that acorns were not eaten in the before times. Their conversation gives the reader a glimpse into the unstable future of industrial agricultural in relation to food sustainability.
[ 7 ] Furthermore, may we consider the body’s need for rest in this global state of unrest.
[ 8 ] Octavia Butler, 3.
brown, adrienne maree. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Chico: AK Press. 2017.
Butler, Octavia, E. Parable of the Sower. New York: Warner Books. 1993
Butler, Octavia, E. Parable of the Talents. New York: Grand Central Publishing. 1998.
Canavan, Gerry. Octavia E. Butler. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2016.
Mistry, Anupa. “On Vulnerability, Playfulness, and Keeping Yourself Honest.” adrienne maree brown on vulnerability, playfulness, and keeping yourself honest – The Creative Independent. The Creative Independent, July 17, 2019.
Taub, Amanda. “A New Covid-19 Crisis: Domestic Abuse Rises Worldwide.” The New York Times. The New York Times, April 6, 2020.
I gratefully acknowledge the operating support from the Ontario Arts Council
Durham Art Gallery
Co-Curator with Yero Timi-Biu