#38 - lessons from desire paths

Reflecting on creative process of shaping possible futures of cities


A few weeks ago we wrapped the season of Desire Paths - a series of six audio meditations that capture a creative and communal process of imagining possible futures for Toronto/T’karonto between a local artist and urbanist.

I’ve talked about this project before and how much I’ve enjoyed it at every level - intellectually, creatively, emotionally, politically, spiritually, financially, and logistically - which is quite a rare feat to achieve. I credit the expanse to my (divine) collaborators, Alex, Macy, Rob, and Jeremy, who not only embraced an experimental and emergent process but became a really fun, thoughtful, and safe landing space over the pandemic to make and make sense together. Each episode took us on an 8-week journey of deep-diving into the current state of a structural and narrative issue pertaining to the city, connecting and building a relationship with an artist, going on a field trip around the city as part of an embodied experience of imagining and storytelling and connecting their vision to an urbanist for further processing.

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On some intuitive level, I think we are drawn to creative and community projects for both the way a vision speaks to something inside of us AND for the subconscious desire for healing and growth that is bound to happen if you engage in a dynamic, honest, and reflective process. Maybe sometimes the project will be about clout, a sense of belonging, or skill-building, and when there is money on the table, it always helps, but if our creative labour is sacred, then where we offer it is not arbitrary.

Also, all creative projects will have a breakdown. I repeat, all creative projects will have a breakdown. Because while projects are guided by spirit, they are led by humans and the relationships between humans, and sometimes we human poorly. Projects are a method to explore a different kind of relationship - one with higher emotional stakes that can lend to a ‘breakdown to breakthrough’ from poor or broken communication, unmet or unknown needs and expectations, differing priorities, and standards of ‘good/great/excellent,’ conflicting politics that challenge one’s integrity, ethics and sense of justice, and power dynamics that reinforce trauma, systems of oppression and privilege. In the breakdown, the primal, the child, and the ego-selves will all show up ready for battle and protection. They will blame and point fingers, and come up with all the ways in which they are wrong. We’ve all been there.

The breakdown is where all the illusions, allure, and fanfare of a project have been deconstructed and unraveled, and you have to choose, through a formidable amount of courage and vulnerability to put the pieces back together in a new shape. To work together in a new way - in a shape that is more honest. And that’s on healing!

Not all projects or relationships recover from a breakdown - and sometimes that is the point - for the pressure to surmount so that a pending break-up becomes possible, birthing a strength in setting a personal boundary. Even when there is space for repair, there is no guarantee of a continuation; just a trust that this conflict and crossroad is meant for us. Painfully, there is always the possibility of avoidance and continuing with a heavy heart that will eventually exhaust and deplete all of you, and often lead to an apocalyptic end.

What I have learned over the years is that the point in the project where it starts to fall apart, or what is often referred to as the ‘dark night of the soul,’ is actually an indication that you are on the right path. Because it is here where a creative project deepens and clarifies, returning to the light in sharper form (if you’re intentional and lucky!) Knowing this, I like to start creative projects by exploring how we will approach the breakdown when it happens, not if, and increasingly want to invite collective healing and relational growth as primary objectives of the work I co-create.

I want to share some of my learnings on creative process from working on Desire Paths, and some of the takeaways on city futures from the episodes as part of my own reflection work. Though the works were Toronto-specific, I believe they apply globally in the midst of global upheaval and system transformation. Please share what resonates with your own creative journeys in the comments!

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Creative Process

  • Plant Collaborative Seeds: I met Macy and Rob from FromLater through another project and immediately knew I wanted to work with them in some capacity (I love this feeling!). I planted the seed and didn’t think about it again. When Alex and I started jamming on Desire Paths and figuring out the budget, I used it as an opportunity to invite them into the project and fulfill my collaborative desires. Keep a list of your dream collaborators, because you’ll never know when the stars might cross to bring you together.

  • Emergence Comfort: Alex and I spent about 12 weeks imagining what the audio experiences could be. At a high level, we knew we wanted to engage artists as stakeholders in the city-building process; utilizing their toolkit at Imagineers to creatively problem solve and vision. We met many times, sometimes in the park, letting the concept marinate until it started to find a form. Even then, we created space for each episode to be emergent - recognizing that each artist would bring a different approach to the process of foresight and imagination. It was useful to be on the same page around which parts of the vision needed to be held, and where there was room to play and experiment, and it was something we continuously refined and recalibrated on. In one case, we felt like we didn’t hold the container as tightly as we could have, and this weakening showed up in the process and the episode. Nonetheless, each episode really stands for itself and is a reflection of striking a delicate balance between vision and emergence while curating and producing.

  • Relationship First: One of our objectives for the project was to connect with each artist in a meaningful way and allow the work to be a reflection of the relationship formed and the ‘micro-journey’ taken through the creative process. A lot of public artwork can be very transactional in nature, so we intentionally shaped the project in a way where we spent a significant of time with each artist (10-12 hours) — doing fewer episodes and paying more for each - which felt more fulfilling and richer to me.

  • Don’t Get Cocky: With one of the episodes, I didn’t double-check the tech on the field trip, now having done it a few times, only to go home and realize that 4-hours of really rich material had not been recorded. It was tough to capture it again - since the artist was processing real-time, but we did what we could. And I of course learned a valuable lesson.

  • Leadership and Collaboration: We all played a very specific role in holding the container and logistics of the project (curator, producer, editors), but always collaborated on the creative and narrative direction, and it worked flawlessly. Each of us led a part of the project, inviting in feedback and discussion, but then ultimately making the final call/cut on the direction. We had a lot of flow with this setup.

  • Beyond the Episode: Because we were working with artists on imagining ‘possible futures’ - it naturally meant that the way art institutions operate was culpable to some of the challenges being identified at the systems and city level. In our collective work episode, the artists (Petrina and Marsya) wanted to put their visions into practice and make the institution aware of how contracting and budgeting processes are not conducive for collective work, instead favoring the individual/solo artist. Their advocacy led to some internal conversations, and a revised contract that was a step in the right direction.

  • Curating Decisions: There was an artist who we were considering collaborating with (and had reached out to) until we got some feedback that they had been violent towards *multiple* women and were unwilling to take accountability and enter into a restorative justice process. On the one hand - the decision to withdraw the invitation felt clear, but on another, it forced us to ask questions like a) do you take anyone’s word for it? b) what does it mean to withdraw a financial opportunity to an artist, especially a racialized artist, based on indirect feedback (i.e. not directly from the survivor/victim) c) how do we continue to navigate and communicate the blur between the personal and professional and be transparent that these matters will be considered in a decision-making process (as they should)? d) who ultimately enforces accountability when violence/harm/rupture happens in artist communities?

  • Imagination: Even with a significant amount of preparation, time, and space for each artist to consider the prompt — imagination is labour, vulnerability, and a skill. There is labour in considering what the current state of an issue is, to recognize and contend with your anger, disappointment, frustration, and hurt, listen for weak signals and push past the ceiling, barriers and concepts of time to pull into your imagination, your future selves, and draw a direction in the present at a city and collective level. The assumption that everyone has this capacity (or desire) is probably inaccurate; some are stronger than others. Saying what we dream about can be vulnerable because there is the possibility that it may not happen in the way you imagine it. I continue to reflect on methods for communal dreaming and imagining, which is inherently movement work that encourages the conviction that the future will be collective. It says, our imagination of the future is shared because our existence is shared.

  • Distribution and Uptake: This is an obvious one - but the last mile of an artwork is equally important as the process if you want to achieve your intended impact. There is a lot more work we could have done to distribute and contextualize the work for greater uptake - but we were also collaborating across teams within an institution with competing priorities which complicated it a bit. However, the benefit of digital works is that you can continue to find new ways to share and repackage them for at least 6-12 months after the initial release.


City-Building/Evolving/Transforming

I am always struck by how even though cities are made up of similar parts - housing, policy, walking and transportation, class divisions, food, education, health, industry, waste management, green space, art, migration - they are each so characteristically distinct. How does a city become a city? What culminates into the ‘energy’ of a city? How does a city get shaped around specific cultural values? How does a city facilitate 'meaning’?

Toronto or T’karonto is often considered a city in its ‘infancy,’ but that’s only if we are speaking in colonial terms, which is basically the long and short of why this place is stuck in its evolution. The actual history of T’karonto traces back 11,000 years, though the major demographic shift happened after the 1960s when racist immigration policies were overturned. So, perhaps more accurately, Toronto is in its ‘infancy’ of not being predominantly white and Protestant, and it shows.

There was a hot second there when it felt like T’karonto was on the cusp of breaking through its conservative nature to invite more creative risks after the Raptors won, and Jessie Reyez was in the Beyonce film, but that was all smoke and mirrors for what has really been going on: privatization of social services, unaffordable housing and cost of living, the gentrification of racialized neighborhoods, stronger and more racist police presence, and an unwillingness to reckon with a colonial and genocidal history. ‘Immigrants’ and marginalized identities gave Toronto the opportunity to market itself as the most ‘diverse’ place in the world, without actually doing any of the work to co-create a shared reality, with shared space and material power.

All the episodes call to possible futures that respond to the historical and present state of affairs and relationships still grounded in a colonial, conservative, carceral, and secular ideology. My affection for cities surfaces from their potential as sites of bursting expression, where asynchronous and zippy connection leads to high-octane creativity. But, for me, it feels increasingly difficult to continue to live in T’karonto, between the cost of living, and new versions of white supremacy glazing over the institutions that hold the cultural space of the city. However, in the spirit of Mariame Kaba who says, hope is a practice, here are some of my key takeaways from Desire Paths that I hope plant some new seeds in your conceptions and process of imagining possible futures of T’karonto.

Ep 1 Indigiqueer Futures | Midnight Wolverine & Matthew Hickey

Key Takeaway: Cities *can* be places where we get to experience all the different parts of our identity in community when we create meaningful and permanent space for it.

Midnight Wolverine, a queer and Indigenous drag king and storyteller shared (paraphrased): I need space for my queerness and my Indigeneity, and not necessarily together. This could mean having spaces like Glad Day Bookshop, which they identified as the only queer space for BIPOC folks in Toronto (which is at risk of continuing), and ceremony space and infrastructure. They also mentioned that Toronto has the least visible Indigenous aesthetics (imagery, symbolism, architecture) in all of Canada, based on their experience.

Ep 2 Sacred Futures | Javid Jah & Reverand Michelle Singh

Key Takeaway: Cities are not ‘secular,’ and in calling them so, we justify the absence of Eastern religions and spiritual traditions to take up meaningful and permanent space in a city.

One of the things that Javid said that really struck me (paraphrased) was: The city thinks if there is an Islamic public art piece it will make people uncomfortable because they don’t understand. What is wrong with being uncomfortable? Why isn’t that an invitation for curiosity? We would never say the same thing about a Christmas tree or a menorah. The ‘diversity’ of Toronto is typically represented as religious spaces or temporary activations/festivals, but permanent works (e.g. monuments) are critical to shaping and naming the cultural values of a city.

Ep 3: Collective Futures | Petrina Ng, Marsya Maharani & Anu Verma

Key Takeaway: There is so much to learn about how we do community and collective work from the suburbs.

Petrina and Marsya have dedicated their foreseeable futures to collective work in the arts; a purpose drawn from their personal experiences growing up feeling isolated in the suburbs. In their pursuit, they continue to face how little infrastructure there is within institutions and the city to support collective work - it’s all designed for the individual and solo artist and creator - from space to budgets and contracts to grants and crediting work. Slowly but surely they unraveling each piece - and have collaborated with curator and organizer, Anu Verma, who talks about the changing nature of the suburbs, the unlocked brilliance within it, and how immigrants in the suburbs get community - whether it’s from a place of survival or culture.

Ep 4 Quayside Futures | Aljumaine Gayle & Car Martin

Key Takeaway: Data transparency is not the same as surveillance; transparency can bring us closer to together through trust (‘power with’), whereas surveillance maintains power over racialized communities.

Last year, Google’s tech futures project, Sidewalk Labs, exited Toronto, after years of advocacy, lobbying, and community engagement, which still left the public wary of the surveilled future they may have been proposing. In this episode, Aljumaine and Car led a study of Quayside, reimagining it through an anti-oppression, interspecies, Afrofuturism lens. The episode is about them living in QPL Arcology (Architecture + Ecology), a world where non-hierarchal peer-to-peer networks are modeled after mycelium; cladophora algae are in collaboration with humans as ‘sensors’ monitoring pollution and oxygen levels to maintain the health of the water; city parks have sheep that graze and Shepherds are a professional class supporting community conflict; Traust is a community governance group offering ‘data detox’ and ‘cybersecurity’ workshops for free with the ethos ‘we believe that trust is significantly more important than surveillance’; and Plumo is a town square that translates public data into artwork (like a data violin) and where there is space for sadness, processing, and collective joy.

Ep 5 Accessible Futures | Pree Rehal, Harmeet Rehal, Cara Eastcott

Key Takeaway: ‘Access intimacy’ is not only asking someone their needs but anticipating them - because we don’t always know what we need - as well as navigating conflicting access needs in open, communal conversations.

Pree was not shy about some of their anger over the ‘multiple pandemics’ they have been experiencing in the last year, especially the ableist design of the CERB program - which considers $2,000/month as a ‘livable wage,’ even though those on ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program) are only offered $700/month as a ‘livable wage.’ That is some hurtful shit. Their reclamation of the term ‘crip’ created the space to just own who they are, which at the time was embracing the use of a cane, without pretense or explanation. When they talk about Access Intimacy, it really is a process of listening and attuning to the people around you, thinking about food and comfort, places for people to sit and rest, how sound and smells impact you, how far you have to travel from one place to another when disabled. Ultimately, it is an act of love, which all cities could use more of.

Ep 6: Futures of Play | Liza Paul & Adil Dhalla

Key Takeaway: Play is a practice and a state of mind. It is always available to you. You can see the city through the lens of play. But in public, play is not safe for everyone - especially Black and Brown men targeted by police, especially if ‘fooling around.’

Liza says ‘having a good time,’ in a way that makes you really want to have a good time. She reminds me of the outsized impact the Jamaican and Caribbean communities have had in shaping play in Toronto; a way of being that is a natural and celebrated part of the culture. We reflect a lot on her personal courage to play, shaped by her family and upbringing, but also her awareness that it is unusual to be comfortable playing and having a good time in almost any scenario (even a funeral). ‘There is no way my ancestors suffered so that we could not have a good time’ (paraphrased). She is committed to telling stories about the Black experience through a lens of joy and takes her role as an oral storyteller very seriously after being taken under the wing of D’bi Young AnitaAfrika. ‘The suffering is there, it will come for you whether you like it or not, but you actually have to choose and manufacture your own joy’ (paraphrased).


Innerwebs / Interwebs

Reflecting: on this TikTok that talks about ‘hypernormalization’ - an in-between state that was felt about a decade before the fall of the Soviet Union where there was mass consensus that society was not working, but there was no plan on how to change it, so you had to somehow operate as per usual. I also just love @sagethehaus. They make me giggle silently on the inside.

Obsessed with: The IG account @vent_diagrams which showcases and recognizes our often contradicting truths so that we can practice and imagine what living within them is towards a collective liberation. There are so many good ones (archived here) that make my nervous system happy.

Tool: In a workshop that I attended earlier this week, the facilitator shared an easy communication prompt, especially useful when needing to have more courageous conversations. Are you above or below the line? Above the line is feeling in a state of openness, curiosity, and a desire to learn, whereas below the line is feeling closed, defensive, and attached to being right. It’s pretty difficult to have a healing conversation if you are below the line, but it’s a totally acceptable and real place to be sometimes. Feels like a good shorthand for teams and partnerships.

Watching: This short film called ‘Meet me by the lightthat softly documents the relationship between the eldest daughter of a South Asian family, and her father, who is dying from diabetes. I wept and ate my tears.

Attending: Planning to make it out to the protest Stop Killing Afghans, happening globally on August 28th. Can’t wait until we never have to talk about American exceptionalism and the American dream ever again. That we have the dignity to not pillage countries dry of their resources, stability, humanity and call it ‘help.’ In Toronto, it is taking place at 3pm at City Hall. If you’re in Canada, the CDA is doing a call for volunteers to support folks making their way here from Afghanistan. Check your city here.


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