Nolan Dennis and his digital Black liberation game

Through a digital essay game that involves texts from Frantz Fanon, Octavia E Butler, Dambudzo Marechera and other radical theorists, the artist reimagines the way we read, learn and ‘write’.

When Zambian-born multidisciplinary artist Nolan Dennis was 14 his grandmother handed him a copy of Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth. It was an encounter that changed how he later viewed the practice of reading.

“It was a copy that belonged to my grandfather,” he says. “When she initially handed me the book, I couldn’t really read it. I didn’t really know what it was about, but I could talk about it and explain to my peers because other people had read it and explained it to me. That’s usually been the relationship I’ve had to most texts: people explaining what the texts meant to them before they lent or bought me a book.”

It was a small incident, but it’s the kind that informs Dennis, 33, an artist who uses different media – video, text, paintings and digital – to make art that questions “the hidden structures that predetermine the limits of our social and political imagination”.

Undated: Nolan Dennis’ allows users to cut-up and reorder Black liberation texts to form new meaning. (Images courtesy of Nolan Dennis)

In 2020, went live. It is an online game – or digital essay game, as he refers to it – that shares seminal Black liberation texts in the same fragmented way he was led to Black liberation theory.

“The basic idea [of the game] came from thinking about how I learned about certain significant texts about the Black liberation tradition and, to be honest, I didn’t really learn about them – at least not in any formal structure. You think about a book like The Wretched of the Earth or I Write What I Like and even before you’ve actually read it, you’ve seen people share quotes [or] screenshots or you’ve discussed the book before having actually read it.

So there are certain texts you have some sort of relationship with before actually touching the book. The idea of ‘a sun black’ came because I was thinking about how we could return to that kind of experience – like a kind of shared fragmented experience – and how I could bring other people to this experience.”

How serious are we about this?

The essay game begins with a set of questions from American sci-fi author Octavia E Butler: How serious are you/I/they/we about this? The gamer is meant to read out loud the quotes taken from Butler’s Parable of the Sower

Part of why the Johannesburg-based artist starts the game this way is to invert the seriousness of its ambitions. The variations on the subject of the question of seriousness (you/I/they/we) are a playful invitation to examine one’s relationship with Black liberation theory and texts.

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“I think the questions asked in the variations are useful ones. Because of the grandness and the grandiosity of these liberation projects, I think it’s easy to get caught up in a certain kind of rhetoric. For example, I think a lot about social media and academia where a lot of this kind of fragmented reading and information-sharing plays out.

Sometimes I think it’s easy to adopt radical positions and just run with it because it’s provocative. But underneath that there’s an underlying urgency to this kind of politics. So it’s always worth asking how serious we are about this, because we’re discussing a very specific kind of freedom.”

Textual layers’s reading list is sourced from more than 20 pieces of literature, ranging from Dambudzo Marechera’s Black Sunlight to Toni Cade Bambara’s On the Issue of Roles. The gameplay is pretty simple. On entry, a user clicks on any one of the variations on Octavia E Butler’s question of seriousness. Each click unlocks an expanse of digital space. From here the user can click on certain fragments of hyperlinked text (usually a quote from the reading list), which then unlocks a new set of fragmented texts.

Once the user has exhausted all the game’s layers, they’ve effectively created their own essay from the fragments of Black liberation texts. The practice is similar to the cut-up technique used by Beat poet William S Burroughs in which a pre-existing text is cut up and rearranged to create a new text with its own meaning. 

Dennis says this act – the user piecing together texts to compile their own essay – is the game’s ultimate purpose. 

“I’d say the game is an attempt at shared meaning-making. I don’t necessarily think of myself as a writer. I think of myself as a reader. And as a reader, I always think of any piece of writing as a game. 

“For example, the order in which things are read is not the order in which you remember them. You only ever remember what’s most significant to you. There’s always this kind of reordering, or reprioritising as a reader and that’s why these little fragments shared on are presented the way they are.”

The gift of possibility

Dennis’ is a project of small, moving parts. The volume of fragmented texts make up the whole: a gaming experience steeped in the intellectual tenor of Black liberation theory. As a game, roots itself in the aesthetics of 1980s arcade games, from the 8-bit graphics to the looping soundtrack.

But if every game has an ending, a destination the user is working towards, where does ultimately lead us? Despite the game’s ambitions, Dennis doesn’t necessarily believe the game’s aim is to prescribe any one definition of Black liberation. 

“I mean, maybe this is the gift that Black consciousness has given us: the knowledge of blackness as both constraint and liberation. So on one hand, you have the idea that, because of the past 500 years or so, blackness has been constrained, and that’s what the Black liberation project is fighting against. But then at the same time, blackness is also the liberation, because it’s the point that exists outside of the constraints. And so, for me, when I think of … a Black liberation agenda, it’s always got to do with possibility.”

You can play online.

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