For cultural architect Damon Turner, the COVID-19 pandemic presents an opportunity for people to creatively rethink the old rules of engagement, both in art and the rest of society, and refocus on what heals us. Damon is the CEO and founder of Trap Heals and a multi-hyphenate artist. His most recent public project, Proximity, used greenhouse architecture, technologically refurbished phone booths, and the intimate portraits of incarcerated individuals to engineer a safe space. Proximity used fine art to allow audiences to get closer to the words of the silenced and oppressed, as well as as the words of their loved ones. Now, with public events and projects shut down for the foreseeable future, Damon and his team have been working on incorporating new technology to produce online events and capture his followers and audience in ways that don’t compromise their safety. He is dropping new music soon, and instead of creating an in person music video, his creative team is developing a virtual experience.
We interviewed him as part of our series of conversations exploring the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on artists who create movement centered work. Damon talked with us about imagining a future beyond festivals, the opportunity for transformation through crisis, and the revealing ways human beings lean on art and artists in times of trouble. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
When did you hear about COVID-19 and what were your initial thoughts?
My first thought about it was, ‘This is some bullshit.’ I thought it was a conspiracy theory. I think, you know, the idea of misdirection—let’s talk about one thing to hide something else that’s happening at the elite level. And I still feel a significant amount of that.
What are you feeling most inspired by in this moment? Is it possible to be inspired during a global pandemic?
I’m inspired by the fact that the world has shut down. It’s almost like the fourth wall has been broken, [like] in theater, where the audience is now in on the charade. We’ve been working in this capitalist framework and have been killing our humanness, and now that the world has stopped people are reminded of our humanity. I think people are tapping into parts of themselves that they left dormant. Now sure, I’m talking from a very privileged position because there are people who are deeply impacted by this: homeless folks who are ill and poor people. But I think there is this common siesta that’s happening where people are reconnecting with things like nature, things like spirit, things like wellness, and that’s pretty inspiring. I also feel it is really inspiring when one thing goes completely to shit, you know, you have to either go to shit with it or think about the alternative, and I’ve seen Black people specifically dealing with creativity in chaos or creativity in survival mode. The best that I’ve witnessed [are] folks who know how to make something out of nothing [or make] the best of a very dark situation. So I’m inspired by all the tools that I saw my grandmother use, I saw my mother use, to make sure that we were able to be here through, you know, poverty and slavery and all kind of shit.
Your work is typically enjoyed by large gatherings of people. How have you reimagined how you interact with your audiences?
I think the main way that people are trying to stay connected is through digital and that’s sort of like the easy out to me, it’s like “how about IG Live or let’s do Zoom meetings.” And it’s dope [that] those are tools that we can import, [but] I think there’s still a deep level of disconnection in that. So I have been thinking about how to still utilize digital spaces to create a more genuine and more deepened connection experience, and I don’t have an answer for that yet. As it relates to physical spaces, we’ve always prioritized healing at the center of all of our activations, and so we’ve been doing a lot of thinking about once we can come back together.
I know [in] the first six months to a year, people aren’t going to want to gather [in] large crowds. So really thinking about what an intimate concert experience can look like when you prioritize healing, or center health practitioners in that cultural space. We’ve been sold [to] modernize the digital and technology, [but] what are some relic-like ways that we’ve gathered before that we can sort of reintroduce, repurpose? Center massage therapy, center acupuncture, yoga, those kinds of practices. The event sector has taken a huge blow in all of this and we have to kind of go back to the drawing board, which I’m grateful for. I think this is great to have a blank canvas to figure it out again.
Cullors: Did you say generic? (sarcastically) Because a trap greenhouse in the middle of South Central is generic?
(laughter) No, definitely not. Negative. I would not say our Trap Heals Greenhouse is generic. I’m glad this is happening because aside from Trap Heals, think about a festival. What’s innovative about festivals? I haven’t really seen innovation in the festivals, because it’s sort of the same blueprint that people are just putting a different name on. This gives us an opportunity to reimagine what the blueprint is, centering the things that we need the most moving forward.
How have you reimagined how people consume art?
That’s an interesting question. I’ve been using this time to create art. I’ve been working on an album that I want to drop while still in quarantine. I don’t want to wait till December to put something out. And I heard about how even right now, [you] can do a ticketed thing for Instagram Live, so I’m just sort of thinking about what are the new tools that are out there to be creative with. But I don’t even know yet all of the things that are popping up to share our art. I’ve been in conversations with you—Patrisse and you—Autumn, and institutions that are doing more like virtual tours, or creating social media content that’s still displaying art. I don’t think any of that shit is tight to me fully, because it seems that those are things we’ve seen before and things that have been done before, and now it’s almost like we don’t have any other option. So it’s like everybody’s going so hard in that space of becoming really really loud. But I think there’s still a very magical thing that hasn’t happened yet. I just [haven’t] come across it or heard anything that’s really WOWED me when it comes to people sharing the art yet. Not to say it hasn’t happened. It just hasn’t come to me.
Where are you seeing history repeat itself?
I remember when I was in high school when September 11th happened, and the amount of nationalism that came out of that was nuts. But the way that people sort of held each other and that time was really remarkable [and] beautiful, but then there was also the ‘Othering’ of a sector of society. I’ve been seeing a lot of really fucked up images of Asian Americans, Asian immigrants being abused, being bullied, and this is Othering that’s happening that is so so blatant and clear to be seen—this political agenda against an entire fucking region of the world. I’m extremely impacted by how shortsighted we are as humans in this context. That’s just one way that I feel like history [is] repeating itself.
I feel the other way that the history repeating itself is more people are not taking risks. Fear and the hysteria has put people again with their backs against the wall, wondering what’s going to happen next and waiting for the government to tell them, or waiting for some power to tell them as opposed to banding together and making it happen themselves. I see the same thinking process happening over and over again where it’s like: We have a moment where we can like band together and and really organize and create new demands and [hold the] flame to the feet of the people who are in power, so that when things do sort of turn back to “normal” [there are] new people in power, there are new people who have a voice, etc. Well, I’m scared that it is just going to be worse when people are already beat down.
Why is art important now?
I remember a few years ago somebody asked me about hope. In the height of Black Lives Matter, ‘Do I have hope?’ or some shit. I was like, ‘of course I have hope.’ I come from a very strong lineage of folks who make do with nothing, and to not have hope in this moment is ridiculous. I feel the same way about that question, as art to me is so important. I’ve been seeing these really cool memes pop up on IG about how everybody’s watching Instagram or listening to music now and reading more books…and it’s like in the middle of this crisis, you’re leaning on artists, now more than ever. It’s so just indicative of our human experience. We want to thrive and succeed, but we don’t want to put the power in people’s hands who help us imagine and help us think and help us feel and help us connect, and it’s just nuts to me how artists are often reduced to just making the flyers for events.
I’m hearing people talking about this as the New Renaissance—hopefully the market is flooded with so much new art. I’m excited. I’m inspired. I’m fucking blessed to identify as an artist. My only concern is that once the economy is back up and running again and capitalism sort of takes its new form that we will fall back into old ways. I’m curious how we solidify artists as the experts and thought leaders that need to be in every single room in every single sector of our society, we begin using our creative powers to help govern and shape the world and deal with problems and not just see it as a luxury or an escape or whatever, but that [it] is actually the rule of engagement. So yeah, it’s a long way of saying art is dope as fuck.
Autumn Breon WIlliams is an art advisor and curator that reimagines global narratives through art and education. A former aerospace engineer, she has worked to cultivate social entrepreneurship throughout the world. Autumn is based in Los Angeles and her work has been recognized by the Smithsonian Institution, Aspen Institute, TED, the Obama Foundation, and LA Magazine.
Patrisse Cullors is a co-founder of Black Lives Matter and a senior fellow at Prism. Follow her on Twitter @OsopePatrisse.
This article is part two of a series of conversations with artists exploring the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on art, creativity, and culture. Read part one, featuring Patrisse and Autumn’s talk with Grammy-nominated artist Nana Kwabena.