Lauren Halsey (b. 1987) is a contemporary artist working in Los Angeles. Halsey creates “immersive, multisensory installations” self-termed “fantasyscapes” (Clockshop). These installations often include signage, found text, ephemera, etc. from the artist’s neighborhood, South Central Los Angeles.
Halsey’s practice inherits the conceptual frameworks of Afrofuturism and is informed by the music collective Parliament-Funkadelic and the speculative fiction of Octavia E. Butler among others. I argue that Halsey’s practice in the vein of Afrofuturism also exemplifies Rasheedah Phillips’ Black Quantum Futurism.
Lauren Halsey’s installation, we still here, there functions both as a model of a speculative future and as an archive of South Central Los Angeles; how then does this offer an alternative phenomenological notion of time?
we still here, there (2018) was exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles from March 4th to September 3rd, 2018. The installation included such materials as: plaster, joint compound, portland cement, builder’s paper, carpets, foam board insulation, wire mesh, wood, fountains, figurines, trophy figures, plaster busts, mannequin arms, miniature flags, hair extension packs, doll parts, fabric, artificial crystals, artificial rocks, oil containers, aerosol spray cans, signs, mirrors, glass, artificial aquarium plants, incandescent clamp lights, LED lights, compact discs, marine epoxy, resin, acrylic paint, and glitter. This expansive list exemplifies the maximalist impulse that motivated the immersive installation. Halsey describes the aesthetic of her work as being inspired by the bright neon colors of funk (specifically the aesthetic of Parliament-Funkadelic). It is also important to note that the installation was methodically changed every two weeks for the duration of the exhibition (“Lauren Halsey: We Still Here, There”).
The title is both a testament to Halsey’s South Central Los Angeles and to Afrofuturism. “We still here” is found text sampled from a sign on a club, the Flying Fox, in Halsey’s neighborhood. The sign explained that although the building looked abandoned, they were still there. The addition of the word “there” to the title is a gesture that points toward the future. Halsey explains that the project, “considers both the darkness of our time and our perseverance to continue on and to survive. We’re resilient, especially as people who have survived slavery and systems meant to annihilate us. No matter where we go, we’re still here, there” (“Lauren Halsey: The Future Is Now”).
This installation is situated both as an archive of a specific place but also as a speculative future. To specify, any use of either speculative fiction or future relies on Lothian’s definition that “[s]peculative theory is work that grapples with the dense futurity of the present, altering concepts of reality even as the real itself is continually cast into question” (Lothian, Introduction). Halsey has previous experience in crafting installations of speculative fictions. In 2016, Halsey participated in a project called Radio Imagination organized by Clockshop. Halsey contributed the installation, and it was a natural extension of my dreaming which was an interpretation of a line of text from a notebook of Octavia E. Butler. The text read, “[f]or a story: Let it take place on an ice desert … a place that makes terrible demands. This one must be a world that changed in recent geological history” (Clockshop). The utility of this fictional world that Butler shaped is an example of Dunne and Raby’s understanding of speculative fiction world-building; “[f]icitional worlds are not just figments of a person’s imagination; they circulate and exist independently of us and can be called up, accessed, and explored when needed” (Dunne and Raby). We will return to this utility as a tool of Afrofuturism.
Time, in the traditional Western sense, is essential to Halsey’s process and to experiencing the work. An expanded view of time is an alternative experience offered by we still here, there. In an interview Halsey explains that an important part of her process is to make a gesture in the studio and then to let it sit—to give it time. It is during this gestation that the object is infused or transmuted with/by funk. Funk in this instance is fundamentally elusive and ineffable (“Lauren Halsey: We Still Here, There”). I suspect that this funk is the same funk that Parliament sings of in P. Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up), “If you got faults, defects or shortcomings/ You know, like arthritis, rheumatism, or migraines/ Whatever part of your body it is/ I want you to lay it on your radio, let the vibes flow through/ Funk not only moves, it can re-move, dig?”(Parliament).
we still here, there itself changes over time as the artist makes interventions. This change is a reflection of the energies of the neighborhood that begot it; just as South Central Los Angeles is in a state of change, so is Halsey’s installation.
The evolution of Halsey’s fantasyscapes originated with Photoshop collages featuring images of the ephemera/text that inspires Halsey (“Lauren Halsey: The Future Is Now”). The gesture of collage is expanded into immersive spaces in these fantasyscapes but maintains important ideas of superimposition and the remix. Halsey explains the process as “free-form, intuitive, use what you got to make what you want, and make it work. It might fail. Rebuild it. Just keep repairing, rebuilding, remixing structure” (“Lauren Halsey: The Future Is Now”). In addition to the tangible layering of material, time is in a way collaged. we still here, there, is an archive of South Central Los Angeles and therefore is an attempt to preserve the past. we still here, there is simultaneously a speculative future. Both of these times are collaged into the present moment for the viewer. It is possible to understand Halsey’s act of archiving the past as a move toward actualizing a speculative future. Wendy S. Walters explains this phenomenon in Blackness in Present Future Tense, “[t]hus if history is form, or a shape of information, then the relationship between time and history does not necessarily have to be linear/chronological, although that is the primary way in which we experience time. If we can imagine the relationship between history and time to be manifest as layers in the way that Blacktronic Science mural depicts history, then the future might also be perceived as a composite of past and present moments rather than a destination” (Walters). This is to say that it is possible that the speculative future is happening right now.
The Afrofuturist concept coined by Rasheedah Phillips, Black Quantum Futurism, gives us a language to discuss Halsey’s manipulation of time. “Black Quantum Futurism (BQF) is a new approach to living and experiencing reality by way of the manipulation of space-time in order to see into possible futures and/or collapse space-time into a desired future in order to bring about that future’s reality” (Phillips 11). Speculative fiction is a tool and BQF is a technique. In this framework, Halsey’s work seems less to be about the future as much as it is about our present; an act of preservation and survival.
Futures like those that Halsey proposes in her work serve an important purpose. In Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility, Alexis Lothian speaks to the efficacy of such work; “These are futures that matter as much for their power in the present as for the concrete ways they may or may not be brought into being” (Lothian, Chapter 3). This is to say that speculative fiction should not be reduced to ideas of a reality that may one day come to pass.
Early iterations of Halsey’s installations were attempts to create a safe haven for herself (“Lauren Halsey: The Future Is Now”). we still here, there is a work that extends that opportunity to the viewer. Brian L. Keeley draws a parallel to speculative fiction and the philosophy of perception in claiming that both, “…help us develop a comprehensive and internally coherent understanding of the world and our place in it” (Keeley). As a viewer of Halsey’s work, one is offered the opportunity to collapse time and in doing so, craft a better future. Such a future could be one that addresses the need for safety or the continued racial work in America.
“And It Was a Natural Extension of My Dreaming.” Clockshop, 2016, clockshop.org/project/radio-imagination-artists/and-it-was-a-natural-extension-of-my-dreaming/.
Dunne, Anthony, and Fiona Raby. Speculative Everything: Design, Fiction, and Social Dreaming. MIT, 2014.
Keeley, Brian L. “Speculative Fiction and the Philosophy of Perception.” Midwest Studies In Philosophy, vol. 39, no. 1, 2015, pp. 169–181., doi:10.1111/misp.12043.
“Lauren Halsey: The Future Is Now.” Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2018, www.moca.org/storage/app/media/uploaded-files/Lauren_Halsey.pdf.
“Lauren Halsey: We Still Here, There.” The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2018, www.moca.org/exhibition/lauren-halsey-we-still-here-there.
Lothian, Alexis. Old Futures: Speculative Fiction and Queer Possibility. New York University Press, 2018.
Parliament. “P-Funk (Wants to Get Funked Up).” Mothership Connection, George Clinton, 1975.
Phillips, Rasheedah. Black Quantum Futurism: Theory and Practice. Afrofuturist Affair/House of Future Sciences Books, 2015.
Walters, Wendy S. “Blackness in Present Future Tense.” New Thoughts on the Black Arts Movement, edited by Lisa Gail. Collins and Margo Natalie Crawford, Rutgers University Press, 2006.