The cultural sector is seeking alternatives to business-as-usual. This article is the second in the series, “Remember the Future: Culture and Systems Change,” co-produced by Art.coop and NPQ. In this series, queer, trans, and BIPOC artists and cultural bearers reflect upon the unique role that culture has played and can play in activating and enacting structural change—and in building a solidarity economy.
March 13, 2020. As the pandemic spreads, the world is poised on the brink of unforeseeable transformations. Hope is nested in fear, like a Russian tea doll. Facing this new unknown, we ask ourselves: How do we keep going?
In the Zoomiverse, we struggle. We cry. We make joy. We innovate and experiment in hopes of birthing a vision of the world that we know we need, now.
A Speculative Fiction Vision of a Solidarity Economy: Other Orbits
Founded in West Philadelphia in 2009, Applied Mechanics is a multiracial, multinational collective of queer and genderqueer (nonbinary) theater artists. All collective members share in the labor of running a company with space for open and vulnerable communication. Members operate by consensus and healthy debate. We practice participatory budgeting. Each play that we create endeavors to use different tools to build a new house and question what a house even is.
The values of radical participatory democracy have informed our sprawling sci-fi art project, Other Orbits. Our collective was in the midst of creating this project when COVID hit our shores. In response, we adapted Other Orbits into a multimodal serial performance piece to overcome new barriers of lockdowns and social distancing. The play is about a world of wildly different beings, gods, and mutants—trying to live together in harmony on a foreign planet amidst great change and turmoil.
Other Orbits unfolded over the course of eight episodes, each in a different medium—ranging from radio to a tabletop role-playing game to a short film. Together, the episodes tell an epic story of ecological reckoning, radical systems of self-governance, and conflict resolution. The project released its first episode in spring 2021 and will culminate in a live performance in the spring of 2023.
At the heart of Other Orbits is each creator’s belief in a world after capitalist colonial apocalypse. Each of us has written a beyond-human character to excavate our personal journey toward that next world. The characters are placed on an imaginary planet, where they play-test the systems that might be birthed from creators’ values and beliefs. The world that emerges is governed by a fully representative democratic council, where every being, no matter how great or small, has a voice and the power to enact change. In Other Orbits, the very planet itself is a person, has a voice, and is represented on the council, which to us seems a no-brainer. On Earth, parallel actions would look like centering global Indigenous leadership and giving land back—to start.
None of these ideas are new. Consciously and unconsciously, we have absorbed, reencountered, and practiced democratic systems of self-determination that are traditional to, and still alive in, many global Indigenous, Black, Brown, and queer spaces today. Our collective cannot help but reflect them in our art.
Our collective is by no means perfect. We acknowledge our failures—and resolve to learn from them, eager to rebuild and unlearn old habits. For us, the answers to addressing these imperfections lie not just in belief, but in how belief is enacted, or the process of enacting. In that, we develop a microcosm of the world in which we wish to live.
Other Orbits is an offering of the vision of that world—a place to practice radical participatory democracy through art while envisioning survival in and beyond the pandemic, climate change, and colonial capitalist apocalypse. In Other Orbits, debates and decisions are celebrated with song. Characters engage in communal dance to heal from ancestral trauma and toxic legacies. They sink their teeth/tusks/hyphae/codes into the principled struggle of moving through conflict in the name of co-evolution and mutual aid, and they become something new, together.
As humans running a theater company, Applied Mechanics endeavors to do similar work, albeit with less dancing and teeth sinking and more Zoom meetings and heartfelt gatherings where we connect over food and play. Nonetheless, perhaps the next world will not be so different from the one our collective and collaborators have imagined through Other Orbits.
Building a Solidarity Economy through Art
Another term for the systems we practice as a company and have represented through our art is solidarity economy. We at Applied Mechanics didn’t know we were moving and dreaming into solidarity economy until recent connections reflected this back to us.
The idea of a solidarity economy resonates with our vision of liberation. Like many artists, our collective members face tensions between our dreams and economic pressures. To pay the bills, we are fiscally sponsored by Headlong Dance Theater, a Philadelphia nonprofit with an aligned mission, and Fractured Atlas, a New York City nonprofit that supports artists nationally. In Practicing Cooperation: Mutual Aid Beyond Capitalism, published last year, Andrew Zitcer of Drexel University documents the tensions between ideals and monetary pressures at Headlong, but emphasizes too the “urban possibility of creative democracy” (203) that is core to Headlong—and to us.
Writing two years ago in NPQ, Natalia Linares and Caroline Woolard noted that artists, by owning common resources, such as community land trust housing that employs solidarity economy principles, can radically reduce housing costs—freeing up time for creative pursuits. As Linares and Woolard observed, “It’s clear that artists need a solidarity economy if we are to overcome our status as exploited workers. Likewise, the solidarity economy movement needs artists if it is to prevail.”
Our collective welcomes this opportunity to deepen intention. Our work is never finished. We celebrate that. We are always learning, using our hearts as our compass, our truth as swords. (Thank you, Assata Shakur). To center our value of mutual thriving for all, we must believe that “No one is free until we are all free” (Thank you, Fannie Lou Hamer). Our group’s intention, while remaining flexible and humble, is to keep moving the needle of change towards collective liberation in the imaginations of our audiences. However small that movement may be, its ripples are cosmic; it is enough, and it never stops.
This struggle towards the next world is a work of art, one in which it is important to remain brave and vulnerable. At every step on the journey to creating this new world, there is compost—critical to building soil. Every offering—kindness, presence, art, patience—is valuable. There is no such thing as wrong or unfinished.
Each mistake—erasure, self-criticism, tension—is an opportunity to grow closer to each other and our highest selves. Every creation is a seed. The process is the soil. The sun and rain are our joy and conflict. They are inextricable from each other and equally indispensable.
Artists—and we are all artists—are microorganisms that nurture seeds. Whatever is harvested will be honored, and every hand that was a part of it thanked, including the Earth from which the harvest was born. This is how we find our way, together.