Worldbuilding and Meditative Speculation through Solange and Civilization

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The Limitations of World-building, from Civilization to Solange

When I was just a girl
I wore a thousand lives
 — “Locked in Closets,” Solange Knowles

We write the tragedy again and again. Click, the world turns.

The choir sings faintly and at all times. Seared to the groovy parts of one’s brain. The melody changes depending on what’s happening, who you dress up as, but it’s still the same symptom. Sid Meier’s Civilization takes hold. There’s a world for me to build. I have a chance to do something, even ever so slightly, different from that which is considered known. The outpost, the biological structure, the act of construction, and capacity to destruct— worldbuilding, the invocation of something just to the left of the form, becomes an illusory practice.

I have clocked over a thousand hours each playing the various iterations of Civ since my first, Civilization 4. There have been six installments in total. A month’s worth of time spent in the repetition of the 4Xs of the 4X genre: eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, eXterminate. The acts become meditative. Settling a town in 4000 BCE and growing a defensible realm over 6000 years, building monuments and wonders of the world, cultivating a society which generates artists, scientists, merchants, and generals with names pulled from many nations’ history books. Despite its explicitly imperial aesthetics, the process of constructing these beasts of global iconography gives a wandering mind visions of what alternative histories could look like.

Let’s speak of imperialism in terms of its nuts and bolts. Edward Said defines imperialism, broadly, as the state agenda wherein colonialism underpins the power of the metropole or sovereign race. Colonialism is a state-sponsored colonization, and colonization is the act of rule or subjugation of one entity over another land or entity (1). The moral quandary of the game series, and most strategy games based on retellings of world history, is its ethos of humanism and how inherent colonization is to that conception of what organized human society looks like. There is no room to fathom that, though the biological processes of the body are questionably yet commonly analogized through colonialism from the cellular level to the largest blocks of life, colonialism and imperialism are not at all inherent to human society’s development. 

The frameworks modern western biology set forth as foundational to all lifeforms’ organizational structures are modeled on these western imperial structures. Sontag addresses the militaristic metaphors of human anatomy and disease’s “corruption” and C. Riley Snorton expounds upon the colonial roots of contemporary medicine via the extraction and abuse of enslaved Black women (2)(3). As such, imperial language and metaphor are ubiquitous in majoritarian cultural productions. These limitations on possible imaginings are byproducts of several scourges which produced anti-Blackness, from Greeks spitting on the barbaros, to Romans in occupied Pheonicia encountering travelers from Ivory Coast, to the Arabs of the early-Middle Ages trading in African slaves making Mansa Musa, the king of Mali, the richest person—the richest Black man—to have ever lived.

That is the nature of the complex condition contemporary inhabitants of aged structures find themselves, looking back to answer questions ahead of us but mostly seeing wrong answers. Within the framework of the game, there exists the potential of affective agency for the player who knows and seeks to undermine history’s anti-Black and imperial narratives. The ethical question of playing a game which mimics the imperial trajectory of the white western world is wholesale overlooked by most of its players who, by and large, are unphased by the evils of imperialism and its inherent white supremacy.

In a May 2019 conversation reproduced in The Face magazine, Solange Knowles spoke with Grace Wales Bonner, a curator of designs, experiences, and installations. Knowles expounded upon her third studio album, and her production in Bonner’s “Devotional Sound” performance space in her exhibition A Time for New Dreams at London’s Serpentine Galleries (4).

“I think so much of my approach is just world-building,” Knowles said, “Just trying to build new worlds and spaces for us to feel seen and safe in and to explore. And also to really try and understand myself better. To answer the questions about myself I might even be afraid to think out loud. I feel like creating these little worlds makes me feel less afraid to get to the bottom of it.” 

The potential of video games to build and destroy “little worlds” allows for such uninhibited exploration of “the questions about [ourselves we]” might also fear. What does it say that a Black state, knowing what we know about the anti-Black violence inherent to the existence of the state, is the answer to anti-Blackness in art from Amazon’s slated Black America to the suggestion of Beyoncé’s forthcoming visual album Black is King? Video games’ relationship to the status of high art is tenuous at best among art critics, Civ is unique in that it itself is an object of visual beauty but, like playdough or generic Legos, is remade through each game session not with hands and pressure but through randomized computer generation of the map and its contents. In a game such as Civilization, whose most popular use is as a solitary, single-player game, the connection Keith Stuart for The Guardian makes shine brightly: “It is possible to argue, of course, that all art is interactive; it is there in the very act of interpretation. The artist is never the sole arbiter of meaning, and artists, like game designers, build structures through which they communicate rather than dictate.” 

Whether it be the intimate, affective, and spiritual performance spaces Solange has held such as the one referenced at Serpentine, her 2017 “An Ode To” at the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan, or her much more expansive experiences like “Metatronia” at the Hammer Museum and “Scales” at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa: these worlds are meant to be experienced with, through, and by other people. The similarity between the solitary and the shared worlds here, though, is their impact on their auteur, a semblance of stability in the well-defined lines required to construct these worlds and the joy found in holes in those walls. She explains, “I don’t really have a real answer for why symmetry and geometry make me feel safe. My understanding is purely a reaction to the safety it makes me feel. I think it must have something to do with the feelings of not having a lot of control over my world as a young person.”

That search for control is loosened by her sampling of vibrant, elemental color schemes that play to the environments enmeshed with the spaces she curates. Though these worlds are artifice, they derive from the world we experience daily. Characteristic of Solange’s performance art is her dancers’ sense of symmetry in relation to the performance’s chosen space, taken from pre-existing buildings and structures. “Bridge-s,” her performance at Getty Museum in Los Angeles, features lines of performers illustrating through negative space the lines drawn by the building’s architect. Space, in Sid Meier’s Civilization, is divided into hexagonal areas used to build “improvements” such as mines, farms, lumber mills, and hunting camps to extract “food” and “production” points for the growth of the city and the construction projects of the city who claims said “hex,” respectively. These contribute to the building of the Pyramids of London or Kilwa Kwasa in Cusco. These create a seamless landscape of regionally stylized urban sprawl adjacent to recognizable wonders of the world. 

In Solange’s performance pieces, trumpeters on balconies draw attention to the space carved to see, be seen, be heard, or hushed. The through lines are references to the spaces surrounding her minimalist, mono, or duo-chromatic designs. At the Getty, the palette plays to L.A.’s infamous stucco obsession in its bright and pale sun tones. “Metatronia,” the first piece to engage a structure designed by Knowles herself, is a stark, white sculptural stage, “Metatron’s Cube,” which Solange stated is intended to travel to different locations around the United States and “be quickly assembled in different landscapes allowing people to have individual interactions and experiences.” The piece’s accompanying video features performers in black ensembles moving, again, in symmetrical lines and repetitive movements that contradict the structure’s design in ways that highlight the beauty of the structure’s form.

These types of visual juxtapositions create new narrative potentials. For example, putting in relief the story told by Black and brown dancers by enacting repetitive and modulated, geometric choreography up against the Guggenheim’s main atrium.

With the support of RedBull and the Guggenheim Museum—whose directors’ profit from military-grade weaponry sold to deter migrants at the U.S southern border—speaks to the fraught relationship between enactments of Black vitality and systems that benefit from opaque, imperial terror. In order for these worlds to be felt widely, one must utilize a wide platform and wide platforms have only been built on the suffering of others. That unjustifiable suffering enables the construction of worlds that envision an end to that suffering though, to varying degrees, across mediums and disciplines, and are thus part of the conversation Solange is necessarily engaging in. How else could one fathom “bury[ing] the masters” while singing in their house?

And the narrative always matters. As to some of her inspiration for her Devotional performance series, Solange says, “Glenn Ligon wrote the forward [of Sun Ra + Ayé Aton: Space, Interiors and Exteriors][,] and there’s a part where he writes about Sun Ra’s imploring of black people to ​‘pay close attention to the power of words, to strive for wisdom and beauty, and to seek immortality’. I payed [sic] real close attention to these ideas and they were a guide for sure.”

In Sid Meier’s Civilization, each culture is considered “civilization” and in opposition to the computer-generated “barbarians” whose sole purpose is to destroy the makings of “civilized” nations. They have the capacity to capture cities, but never build buildings, districts, or wonders. In fact, their technology level matches that of the most advanced civilization in the game, so in later eras barbarian machine gun units and mechanized infantry can be found in the unclaimed recesses of the north and south poles. Once all land has been claimed, espionage units can “recruit partisans” that appear on the outskirts of the target city. The reality is, however, that many of the represented cultures would be “barbarians” to most of the historical leaders from the west. It is a paltry neoliberal fantasy to imagine Nubia, the Zulu, the Cherokee or the Maori respected as equals by Wilfred Laurier, Theodore Roosevelt, or Philip II of Spain. Each culture is labeled an “Empire” out of uniformity and respect; Shaka Zulu would likely have refused such a title. However, out of a desire for consistency and likely the Firaxis team’s dedication to approximating historical accuracy where they can, most nations and leaders are from polities such as nation-states, kingdoms, duchies, and tribal federations and confederations. 

Within the framework of the game, there exists the potential of affective agency for the player who knows and seeks to undermine history’s anti-Black and imperial narratives. The ethical question of playing a game that mimics the imperial trajectory of the white western world is wholesale overlooked by most of its players who, by and large, are unphased by the evils of imperialism and its inherent white supremacy. A linear scientific tree for each nation represented assumes one “correct” knowledge production, one that just so happens to mirror that of the European powers. I am sure there are players who are nostalgic for the explicit white supremacy invoked in games of empire or invoked in Civ 6’s “Age of Discovery” design thematic, who play for reprehensible reasons alone in their parents’ basement. But for those who are solely there captivated by the sandbox and her castles, perhaps Amanitore, queen of ancient Nubia, would create a prosperous state in which anti-Blackness did not climatize as Christina Sharpe punctuates (5). But the nation-state itself was devised upon anti-Black enlightenment reasonings of what is human, who is a subject, and thus the point is moot. However, much is to be learned from speculation: imagine a Black nation at the forefront of scientific and artistic output that could either refuse such socially embedded racism or, theoretically, become the brunt of a different racism born out of non-Black jealousy for Nubia’s being the world’s leader in every respect. What would be possible if the trans-Atlantic slaving of Black peoples, by virtue of slaving not being a plot point in the structure of Civilization’s playthroughs, read as morally abhorrent and despicable from the dawn of time, here, in this world?

Such impossible imaginings are rendered regularly on the internet forums dedicated to roleplaying the worlds that players build (and destroy) in their playthroughs. The danger is the teetering between that which we know: oppressive states, identifiable in nearly all of the victory types achievable in Sid Meier’s Civilization; and that which we dream, something more focused on building and experiencing the period between the start and finish. Winning loses its meaning when one is there to learn from the story.

It is in this repetitive, speculative exploration of recurrently uncharted historical waters that, in the hands of a player who is invested in writing alternative histories, world-building achieves the meditative. From traditional art-making to the queer gestures of virtual realities, the processes of world-building illuminate the deficiencies in our timeline while presenting senses of wonder that point to better pasts and futures, ones that could better facilitate our survival. 

But both revel in different aspects of the given institutions and frameworks of the world we inhabit. Sid Meier’s Civilization leaves one to imagine unimaginable institutions that operate from Blackness as human, whereas Solange utilizes given institutional patronage systems to devise spaces in which Blackness is removed from our world’s social death of Black people. Her attempt at removing the anti-Black violence imposed on Black people’s bodies, cultural products, and forms of knowledge production is instructive as a model for new aesthetic framings. However, Solange’s performances rely on institutional frameworks to enable her conversations about what Black belonging could mean outside of a white gaze, in some respects defeating the purpose. We have yet to see Metatron’s Cube as an inhabitable space in the world, but as public space becomes more contested than usual amidst public health crises and global protests against imperial regimes of power from Louisville to Bethlaham, a more incendiary art seems like it would be more in line with the kinds of spaces in which people would like to experience today. In her essay “An Ars Poetica from the Blue Clerk,” Dionne Brand writes “We wait for narrative to do what war should or might do” (6). It is clear that a state is not the answer, that the spaces Solange constructs are closer. It is in acknowledging the limits of the “worlds” we build, we begin to push our understanding to more transformative grounds for our earth. 

And it is a flimsy consolation to play dress-up with a Black utopian world. Yet the urge to build remains. Today, I understand that meditative relation as an imaginative pacification for hours on end, asking better questions only to feel less of that which I am speculating against. Returning declarations of war, cultural plunder, and unnecessary violence with that same energy, only to see your sense of “justice” win over your colonizer’s people and witness their revolt. Whether it be in words or virtual wonders of the world, iterative world-building massages the tensed grooves of the choir’s mind and body. Ultimately, however, feelings are never enough. It’s the lessons these feelings feed us that are useful. In its failure to be fully realized or have its intended effects, world building yields through each attempt a better understanding of what we are getting wrong, what should be left behind, and to what earth might be headed.

Notes

  1. Said, Edward. Culture and Imperialism. Vintage Publishers, 1998. p.9. Web.
  2. McCord, Brooke. “Grace Wales Bonner in conversation with Solange,” The Face, London. May 30, 2019. Web.
  3. Sontag, Susan. Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors. New York, Picador, 1989. p. 99. Print.
  4. Snorton, C. Riley. Black on Both Sides. Web. pp. 17-19.
  5. Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. p. 106. Print.
  6. Brand, Dionne. “An Ars Poetica from The Blue Clerk.” The Black Scholar, Vol. 47:1, pp. 58-77. Web.

Images

  1. Miller, Ryan. Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging. 2019. Getty Museum, http://news.getty.edu/image-gallery/recent-news/solange-debuts-bridge-s-at-getty-center-museum/.
  2. Johnson, Krisanne. Solange. Red Bull Music Festival, 2017. Guggenheim Museum, https://www.redbullcontentpool.com/international/AP-1S253QXPS2111
  3. Miller, Ryan. Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging. 2019. Getty Museum, http://news.getty.edu/image-gallery/recent-news/solange-debuts-bridge-s-at-getty-center-museum/.
  4. Meiers, Sid. Civilization 6. Firaxis, 2K Games. 2016. Screenshot by author.
  5. Meiers, Sid. Civilization 6. Firaxis, 2K Games. 2016. Screenshot by author.
  6. Miller, Ryan. Photo by Ryan Miller/Capture Imaging. 2019. Getty Museum, http://news.getty.edu/image-gallery/recent-news/solange-debuts-bridge-s-at-getty-center-museum/.
  7. Meiers, Sid. Civilization 6. Firaxis, 2K Games. 2016. Screenshot by author.
  8. Meiers, Sid. Civilization 6. Firaxis, 2K Games. 2016. Screenshot by author.
  9. Meiers, Sid. Civilization 6. Firaxis, 2K Games. 2016. Screenshot by author.