Los Angeles

Radio Imagination: Artists in the Archive of Octavia E. Butler

Radio Imagination: Artists in the Archive of Octavia E. Butler is an exhibition curated by the Los Angeles–based arts organization Clockshop, and is part of Clockshop’s yearlong program to commemorate the ten-year anniversary of the celebrated science-fiction writer’s death. In addition to this exhibition, the program has also included collaborations with local platforms such as ALOUD at the Los Angeles Public Library and REDCAT. On view at Pasadena’s Armory Center for the Arts, Radio Imagination comprises newly commissioned artworks by several artists who explored and responded to contents of the author’s archives, which are housed at the Huntington Library in nearby San Marino.

Installation view of slideshow of materials from the Octavia E. Butler Papers. Courtesy of Clockshop. Photo: Gina Clyne.

Installation view of slideshow of materials from the Octavia E. Butler Papers. Courtesy of Clockshop. Photo: Gina Clyne.

A room near the exhibition’s entrance features a slideshow of images of notebooks, photographs, and ephemera from Butler’s papers at the Huntington. It is not hard to imagine how artists—who must persist through impossible cycles of success and failure—must understand the motivation and frustration ever-present in Butler’s notes. “Focus on Action!” is written again and again on a particular scrap, undoubtedly reminding the author to continue pushing forward, no matter how grueling the project. While the slideshow provides an evocative glimpse of the archive’s source material, it would be even stronger if objects from the collection were actually on display at the Armory, and were allowed to intermingle with the new work generated by the invited artists.

Lauren Halsey’s sculpture And It Was a Natural Extension of My Dreaming hugs a corner of the exhibition hall. A professed “fantasyscape,” the installation is a collection of various materials: neatly cut pieces of foam covered in smooth, reflective silver, flat “pools” of blue paint, chunky plaster, and succulents and cacti that have been taken out of their plastic containers, their soil still holding funny inorganic shapes. Halsey found inspiration in Butler’s description of an “ice desert,” written in one of her notebooks as “a place that makes terrible demands.” In conversation with the dire ecological conditions ensuing from an extended drought, Halsey’s work is pointed.

Installation view of Radio Imagination: Artists in the Archive of Octavia E. Butler. Courtesy of Armory Center for the Arts. Photo: Jeff McLane Studio.

Installation view of Radio Imagination: Artists in the Archive of Octavia E. Butler. Courtesy of Armory Center for the Arts. Photo: Jeff McLane Studio.

From another botanically minded angle, the photographs by Connie Samaras meld landscapes from the Huntington gardens and items from Butler’s archive into lush composites of overlapping images. The results don’t quite belong in reality, capturing the same light and color that sometimes magically glint across the southern California terrain.

Connie Samaras. The Past is Another Planet: Huntington Rose Garden; OEB 7350, Photograph of Octavia E. Butler, Washington, 2001, 2016; archival pigment print from film (diptych). Courtesy of the artist.

Connie Samaras. The Past Is Another Planet: Huntington Rose Garden; OEB 7350, Photograph of Octavia E. Butler, Washington, 2001, 2016; archival pigment print from film (diptych). Courtesy of the Artist.

“This is an interesting idea,” a voice intones in Cauleen Smith’s video. It continues: “The Black female body as a vehicle of childbearing, a technological tool of mass reproduction.” Projected at the end of a narrow gallery, Kindred features a Black female protagonist traveling between the antebellum South and present Pasadena, seizing various details from the namesake novel by Butler. Bits of the film had to be edited after a review by Butler’s estate, as Smith did not own film rights, which adds to the sense of disorientation and distress fostered by the tale.

Another small gallery holds Keith + Mendi Obadike’s sound installation, Ring Shout (for Octavia Butler), where speakers grouped in a circle at ear level croon hauntingly. Lifting unpublished material written by Butler when she was a teenager, Ring Shout utilizes an “Afro-American folk music-dance ritual” to open out the story through voice and sound. The artists plan to launch a satellite broadcasting Rich Shout over radio frequencies at the close of the exhibition, further connecting Butler’s legacy to the cosmos.

Malik Gaines and Alexandro Segade. Installation view of Star Choir, 2016; musical score and 3-D animated video, color; 20 minutes. Courtesy of Clockshop. Photo: Gina Clyne.

Malik Gaines and Alexandro Segade. Star Choir, 2016; musical score and 3D animated video, color; 20:00; installation view. Courtesy of Clockshop. Photo: Gina Clyne.

A score for Malik Gaines and Alexandro Segade’s Star Choir is perched to the right of a monitor playing a recording of the performance from the exhibition’s opening night. Backed by an orchestra, a group sings lyrics taken from Butler’s unfinished Parable of the Trickster. The lyrics are superimposed over the video and relay the story of the stars, while the singers chant their words like an ancient Greek chorus. Facing Star Choir, Laylah Ali’s series of black-and-white works titled Commonplace Drawings intricately depict otherworldly creatures engaging with text culled from Butler’s daily journals. The journal entries and Ali’s drawings alike capture and distill heated moments and observations that accompany human desire. The alien figures are shown alone, in pairs, and in groupings, illustrating our craving for camaraderie and intimacy.

Laylah Ali. Commonplace Drawings, 2016; series of drawings. Photo: Kate Lain. Courtesy of Clockshop.

Laylah Ali. Commonplace Drawings, 2016; series of drawings. Photo: Kate Lain. Courtesy of Clockshop.

On the whole, the minimalist installation of the exhibition mimics Butler’s trim prose, sometimes feeling a touch too spare, as large swaths of white wall divide the works. However, Radio Imagination not only illuminates Butler’s studied understanding of southern California’s mythic landscapes and sun-bleached climate, but also clarifies Butler’s universal commitment to creative labor in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, highlighting the generative strain of Afrofuturist thinking. In the novel Parable of Talents (1998), Butler intuited the rise of a charismatic despot who promised to “make America great again.” This bit of fortune-telling reveals the capabilities of science fiction: its uncanny traversal of past, present, and future, and its uncovering of the horrors and wonders of humanity through original inquiry and speculation.

Radio Imagination: Artists in the Archive of Octavia E. Butler will be on view through January 8, 2017.

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