The multi-disciplinary artist teams up with Mills Folly Microcinema for an April 7 event at Arts + Literature Laboratory.
Header image: In a scene from the short film “Cicada,” multi-disciplinary artist James D. Gavins is shown dancing in fluid motions against a background of water. Multiplied, semi-transparent duplicate images of Gavins overlap in different postures. Courtesy of James D. Gavins.
“You’re located in your mental profile.”
This is how a computer, voiced by Jill Huguet, situates James D. Gavins’ unnamed protagonist in Gavins’ half-hour short film Cicada. The tense and resourceful sci-fi film captures the protagonist’s encounter with a computer program, also called Cicada, that forces the character to explore his own uploaded consciousness—ostensibly in the name of providing reparations and helping Black Americans heal from their trauma. It screens on April 7 at Arts + Literature Laboratory as part of an event dubbed “The Essential Midwest James,” part of the Mills Folly Microcinema experimental film series.
Gavins will also perform live at the April 7 Mills Folly event, showcasing several works that cut across the disciplines of dance, music, and theater, and holding a talkback about Cicada. Papa-Kobina Brewoo and Roel Hernandez will join Gavins for the dance- and theater-focused section of the evening. Drummer and experimental musician Tim Russell will accompany Gavins for another portion of the show.
The event, and the film, serve as an overview of the multi-faceted work Gavins has been developing since the Chicago native arrived in Madison in 2008 as part of First Wave, UW-Madison’s interdisciplinary hip-hop/spoken-word/theater/dance program. Early in his time here, Gavins made his mark as a rapper under the name J Dante, and with his remarkably varied work in movement—most strikingly in popping, a dance form built on precisely controlled muscle movements that create uncanny combinations of human fluidity and robotic abruptness. He’s created theater pieces, in addition to his works in music production and comedy. In 2020, he made a viral splash with “N THE HOUSE TN,” a song and music video that made the best of cooped-up pandemic life. In summer 2019, Gavins joined the staff at First Wave’s parent institution, UW’s Office of Multicultural Arts Initiatives. He began a new job in January, and will leave Madison in May.
All the different art forms Gavins has practiced combine in Cicada, which Gavins and collaborator Karl Michael Iglesias first created as a stage play. The spasms the character undergoes as he plunges into Cicada’s psychic depths—actually the virtual-reality facility in UW-Madison’s Discovery Building—aren’t special effects, but actual physical movements that tie back to popping. During this sequence, Gavins raps over Kevin MacLeod‘s eerie electronic score. The opening bars hint at the questions Gavins unpacks about identity, memory, and the self:
“When I was younger I thought I had ADD but couldn’t focus on it / I was too focused on us going through locust moments / Dark as the dark, used to call him a Coca-Cola / But I am just art in motion, a mural on your Corolla / And people just wanna own ya / Chewed on the thought of it, and damn it, I broke a molar.”
Gavins and cinematographer James “Knowshun” McGee masterfully pull the film in a more graceful direction a couple of scenes later, as the protagonist recalls nearly drowning in a swimming pool as a toddler. It’s his first traumatic memory, but it becomes serene and wondrous. Gavins dances in graceful, undulating motions, and McGee layers these in translucent multiples against a column of calm blue waters.
Then Cicada’s pleasant, diplomatic voice asks: “Would you like to erase this memory in your mental profile?” The protagonist responds with a puzzled look and says, “Erase it? I mean, nah, it’s like, it happened, I’m not, like, dealing with it. It’s cool.” And here viewers start to grapple with what Gavins calls the “conundrum” at the heart of Cicada: Would erasing such a memory heal someone, or would it violently strip them of their reference points, even their capacity for self-preservation?
“That part is really focused on the romanticization of trauma,” Gavins says. “This whole idea of ‘Why would I get rid of that? And then I don’t have an interesting story to tell about when I was two.'”
All the memories discussed in the film are drawn from Gavins’ real life, a storytelling choice that makes the film as disarming and personal as it is challenging and dystopic. One of Gavins’ main inspirations was the Black Mirror episode “Fifteen Million Merits,” which stars Daniel Kaluuya as a resident of a hellishly transactional sort of content farm. Gavins says he admires Black Mirror‘s ability to “talk about the future with the now.” Like a lot of great sci-fi, Cicada shows us a strange future that is already seeping into the present.
Even though the film was made in partnership with a campus program promoting STEM related fields, it will inevitably get viewers thinking about the ways technology embodies the biases, and the hubris, of its creators. The questions Gavins raises about erasing and voiding the Black experience are prescient in light of the ongoing spate of efforts to ban books and teachings that confront systemic racism. That wasn’t on his mind when he and Iglesias began writing Cicada a few years before the critical race theory panic began. Gavins still believes the intentions of Cicada are still open to interpretation. That interpretation could be sinister, but, Gavins notes, “when you hear the [computer voice] talking to this character, there’s kind of a level of care as well.”
Gavins and Iglesias began writing Cicada after a few incidents that got Gavins thinking about how Black people carry around both the realities and the concepts of oppression. Between 2018 and 2019, Gavins watched with horror as a few different major fashion companies, including Gucci and H&M, blundered into jaw-droppingly racist imagery—Gucci’s “minstrel lips” balaclava and H&M’s photo of a Black child wearing a hoodie emblazoned with the text “coolest monkey in the jungle.” Then he watched a TMZ interview in which boxer Floyd Mayweather went shopping at a Gucci store and brushed off calls to boycott the brand, declaring, “I live for myself. I do what I want to do.” Mayweather seemed to Gavins to be so unencumbered by the dangers and politics that pervade Black American life.
“This is a guy who’s my color, very, very successful,” Gavins recalls. “But I just thought about how much that I have in me that he’s not carrying. Well, there’s pros and cons to that, right?”
While thinking about all this, Gavins walked to his car one day and found a molted cicada skin sitting on one of the tires. “This is like a perfect replica of the cicada,” he recalls. “Right to the little scratches, you can see everything in this encasing.” The computer program and the stage play (and eventually the film) got their name from that shell, a name that asks us to define how much trauma weighs a person down, armors a person, defines a person. And of course, the film asks how buried things end up returning to us.
Even though Gavins and McGee had access to high-tech tools in the VR lab, Cicada often sets those tools aside in favor of a straightforward visual approach. A good portion of the film was shot in the stylish conference room that occupies the middle of the Discovery Building’s lobby—well-lit but otherwise unadorned. Another sequence, in which Gavins processes more childhood memories through a stand-up comedy routine, consists of simple footage from the initial stage play of Cicada at the 2019 Line Breaks Festival, in the Memorial Union’s black-box Play Circle Theater. The protagonist of Cicada endures a series of jump-cut transitions, rendered without frills but all the more abrupt and unsettling for that.
“The biggest part about the future is us witnessing it. So that didn’t have to be super technical, or technological, or whatever,” Gavins says. “No, I’m just in a different place than I was just at, and that’s big to me. That’s enough. You know, I don’t need special effects or whatever. No, you have changed my clothes and put me somewhere else.”
These choices reflect Gavins’ ability to cut to the chase, all while blending different modes of expression and exploring some profoundly tangled themes. He’s certainly not a mere dabbler in any of these practices, but doesn’t much trouble himself about where one ends and another begins.
“The thing is, my brain doesn’t really have the gates,” Gavins says. “[In] Cicada, you can watch me watch me do comedy. You can watch me dance and you can watch me rap. And it’s something I directed. Even the stand-up part is literally directly from the theater show. So you’re being warped into the theater show, because I felt like that’s the best way to watch that. I didn’t want to reshoot it. The best way to watch that stand-up part is to watch it when I authentically told those stories.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to remove some potential spoilers.