Our final episode in the “Reimagining Utopia” series focuses on “Utopia In Performance” and includes conversations with artists who are creating works that give us hope and imagine a better, more equitable society.


Damon Locks is an artist, musician and educator as well as the founder and leader of Black Monument Ensemble, a vibrant collective of artists, musicians, singers and dancers, making work with common goals of joy, compassion and intention. He was recently featured in the New York Times for the release of Black Monument Ensemble’s album, NOW, which the Times described as spinning “societal despair into forward-looking optimism.” The contributors come from all facets of the diverse well-spring of Black Excellence in Chicago and are a multi-generational group ranging in age from 9-52 years old at this recording. In addition to Locks, current and consistent BME members include: instrumentalists Angel Bat Dawid, Ben LaMar Gay, Dana Hall, and Arif Smith; singers Phillip Armstrong, Monique Golding, Rayna Golding, Tramaine Parker, Richie Parks, Erica Rene, and Eric Tre’von; and dancers Raven Lewis, Cheyenne Spencer, Mary Thomas, Bryonna Young, Tiarra Young, and Keisha Janae.

Locks has a stated interest in work that explores “The Black Nod” which, as he explains, is “an unspoken acknowledgment that happens often out in the world – a sort of ‘I see you’ moment exchanged between Black people.” His work with BME attempts to do the same. Fronted by a jubilant choir, the ensemble embraces a kind of civically engaged, artistic approach to activism originally heard in the 1960s from bands like the Voices of East Harlem and on albums like Max Roach’s We Insist; or originally seen in the photography of Kwame Brathwaite and the art of Emory Douglas. Merging influence from the subsequent half-century of artistic & technological evolution, Locks employs a cyber-punk palette of disparate implements (including beatbox, boombox, telephone, and megaphone) to make narrative compositions of mined sound, beats & archival speech (a la Madlib or Supa K) which are brought to life by the ensemble in electric, improvisational performance. It’s a truly multi-dimensional sound that spans mediums, genres, and generations; past, present, & future.

Founded in 2014, Propelled Animals is a group of artists, dancers, scholars, musicians, and designers who embed innovative and provocative art in unconventional spaces. They are committed to creating work that interrogates, challenges, and ultimately attempts to dismantle the systemic “isms” of oppression. They adapt their projects and processes to address the specific needs of the communities they engage. Our performances encourage efficacy of the body, resilience, and radical tenderness as strategies for self-empowerment. Their work is centered on art as social action and ritual as performance.

The Propelled Animals have presented work nationally including six site-specific performances at institutions including: University of Iowa and Englert Theatre (Iowa City, IA); University of Northern Iowa (Cedar Falls, IA); Wassaic Project (Wassaic, NY); Grinnell College (Grinnell, IA); Lynden Sculpture Garden (Milwaukee, WI). In 2019 they were artists-in-residence at Lynden Sculpture Garden and the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University.

Raquel “Rocky” Monroe and Heidi Wiren Bartlett are members of Propelled Animals and joined us in conversation about their work. Raquel Monroe, Ph.D. is an interdisciplinary performance scholar and artist whose research interests include black social dance, black feminisms, and popular culture. Monroe’s scholarship appears in journals and anthologies on race, sexuality, dance and popular culture. She is completing a monograph analyzing the intersections of Black feminism and Black liberation by Black female cultural producers in popular culture and the Black public sphere. As a maker and performer, Monroe is a member of the interdisciplinary arts collective the Propelled Animals, currently in residence at High Concepts Labs in Chicago, IL. The Propelled Animals are recipients of the Map Fund, and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Fund grants. Monroe has recently performed with Ben Lamar Gay at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Il; and the Baker&Tarpaga Dance Collective as part of the Chicago Architecture Biennale. Monroe is the Co-Director of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and an Associate Professor in Dance at Columbia College Chicago. She is a founding board member of the Collegium for African Diaspora Dance.

Heidi Wiren Bartlett holds an MA, MFA from the University of Iowa and is an interdisciplinary performance artist from the Great Plains. Her work is concerned with the portrayal, oppression and subversive existence of women in America today. She received an Iowa Arts Council Project Grant to support this project and has recently been nominated for the United States Artists (USA) Fellowship. After receiving her MFA in 2015, her work has been exhibited at Grace Exhibition Space and Panapoly Performance Space (Brooklyn, NY), Vox Populi (Philadelphia, PA), Wassaic Project (Wassaic, NY), Bemis Center for Contemporary Art and PROJECT PROJECT (Omaha, NE), DFRL8R and Ignition Project Space (Chicago, IL), Arts + Literature Laboratory (Madison, WI), Yellow Door Gallery and Moberg Gallery (Des Moines, IA). She has been a visiting artist at Concordia University (Seward, NE), Iowa State University (Ames, IA), Lafayette College (Easton, PA) and Carnegie Mellon Univerity Qatar (Doha, Qatar). Bartlett is currently an instructor and Art & Creative Director at Carnegie Mellon University.

Damon Locks is a Chicago-based visual artist, educator, vocalist/musician. He attended the Art Institute of Chicago where he received his BFA in fine arts. Since 2014 he has been working with Prisons and Neighborhood Arts Project at Stateville Correctional Center teaching art. He is a recipient of the Helen Coburn Meier and Tim Meier Achievement Award in the Arts and the 2016 MAKER Grant. He operated as an Artist Mentor in the Chicago Artist Coalition program FIELD/WORK. In 2017 he became a Soros Justice Media Fellow. In 2019, he became a 3Arts Awardee. Currently he works as an artist in residence as a part of the Museum of Contemporary Arts’ SPACE Program, introducing civically engaged art into the curriculum at the high school, Sarah E. Goode STEM Academy. Damon leads a group entitled Black Monument Ensemble and is a founding member of the group The Eternals and is the vocalist for Rob Mazurek’s Exploding Star Orchestra.

This episode Includes the song “Now (Forever Momentary Space)” by Black Monument Ensemble with the following artists:

Angel Bat Dawid – clarinet
Ben LaMar Gay – cornet & melodica
Dana Hall – drums
Damon Locks – samples & electronics
Arif Smith – percussion

Phillip Armstrong
Monique Golding
Tramaine Parker
Richie Parks
Erica Rene
Eric Tre’von

Lyrics & Compositions by: Damon Locks. Recorded August 27th-28th and September 29th, 2020, at Experimental Sound Studio, Chicago. Engineered & Mixed by: Alex Inglizian. Mastered by: David Allen.

The episode also includes an audio excerpt of Propelled Animals collaborator Boubacar Djiga playing the tama – which was used in their piece STATE(D) part of the 2021 Pivot Arts Festival performance tour.

The Pivot Arts Podcast is sponsored by FLATS, a Chicago based apartment community.