Creative Ecosystems is a digital garden tending communal Black creativity

The digital garden aims to grow “sustainably” rather than rapidly, challenging “the colonialism and imperialism” often involved in gardening. Creative Ecosystems founder Annika Hansteen-Izora tells us more.

Date
21 July 2022

A New Angle is an editorial series that aims to give a platform to creative industry changemakers who make it their mission to disrupt the status quo. In each edition, we’ll chat to a person or team doing important work in the sector, making it a fairer place, championing vital causes, supporting underrepresented groups and tackling pertinent issues facing creatives everywhere.

This week, we’re talking with Annika Hansteen-Izora, the creator and tender of Creative Ecosystems, a digital garden and directory centring radical Black imagination. According to Creative Ecosystems, a digital garden is an online space that values communal work rather than creating for personal merit. Its contributors add to the gardens via “seeds” like media, videos, and text, in this case, ones that “nourish Black art or creative work”. Aiming to challenge the “white supremacy” involved in gardening, and to operate outside of the non-profit complex at large, Annika shares how the space functions as a “constellation” to connect Black creatives, and as a directory for a host of brilliant communal initiatives.

It’s Nice That: What is it about the creative industry’s structure that you’re aiming to change with Creative Ecosystems?

Annika Hansteen-Izora: Creative Ecosystems aims to provide a digital garden and resource that celebrates communal Black creative thought. That in itself holds many aims that work against how the creative industry is built. First and foremost, the creative industry is not designed to support Black creatives. From a US perspective, not only is our representation extremely low, but that representation is not enough. Representation is, as the word names, a symbol, not an action. Representation is not an extension of tangible support and resources for Black artists. In honouring the long lineage of communal Black work, Creative Ecosystems hopes to be a map for Black artists to connect with spaces that are building and dreaming from a radical Black imagination from the start.

Creative Ecosystems is also aiming to celebrate communal rather than individual creative work, which is very different from how the creative industry is structured. Largely, the creative industry is built around supporting individual creative pursuits. While I believe individual creative pursuits are important, we’re more interested in learning what it can look like to support collective creativity, and what it means to grow, learn, care and create together.

It’s Nice That: What have you built with Creative Ecosystems, and how does it tackle these industry issues or restructure digital or creative spaces?

Annika Hansteen-Izora: We’ve built an online directory and archive of communal Black creative work. We want Creative Ecosystems to be used by Black creatives as a map, constellation, and guide that allows us to connect with one another, and from that connection, collectively learn and grow.

As someone who is a multimedia artist and designer that works in digital spaces, a large part of my work is reimagining what digital spaces can look like if created from places of care, joy, sustainability and intention. The digital landscape is in a nefarious place, to put it lightly, especially if you are of a marginalised identity. I think of how much Black culture has impacted the internet, yet our citation is erased. Creative Ecosystems is restructuring what a creative and digital space can look like by structuring ourselves as a digital garden that’s tending to communal Black creative thought.

I use the term “digital garden” to describe Black Creative Ecosystems, which I largely define as a digital space that is tended to by a collective group of people with “seeds” – a form of digital media such as photos, videos, text, etc – and that is created with the intention of growth and sustainability. There are many people that use the term digital garden, but something I often find missing in its use is a perspective that challenges the colonialism and imperialism that is involved in gardening. For example, Instagram might be called a digital garden, but it’s been repeatedly critiqued for censoring and banning Black creators that speak out against anti-Black racism. If Instagram is a digital garden, what is being tended? What kind of future is it supporting? To have an impact that reaches beyond the articulations of white supremacy, digital gardening needs to be practised through a lens of care that challenges supremacy. Some perspectives that come to mind that have been a part of that study are Dr. Chelsea Mikael Frazier’s Black Feminist Ecological Thought: A Manifesto, the work of Octavia E. Butler, Romy Opperman’s We Need Histories of Radical Black Ecology Now, Neema Githere’s Data Healing, Legacy Russell’s Glitch Feminism, and designers that are studying decolonising design.

It’s Nice That: Are there any other platforms or spaces out there like Creative Ecosystems, and what sets yours apart?

Annika Hansteen-Izora: Black Creative Ecosystems is a part of a long-standing lineage of Black artists and writers that have gathered through collectives. The Black Arts Movement and The Dark Room Collective were critical spaces for Black poets and literature, and Where We At Black Women Artists was a collective that formed as a response to the lack of space for Black women in the feminist art movement. With the emergence of the internet, there are more opportunities to stretch our radius more widely. What sets Creative Ecosystems apart is that we’re an online space, and also that we’re dedicated to radical Black imagination. Our definition of radical Black imagination is imagination that is rooted in Black trans disabled histories and futures that call in realities where all have access to agency and thrivability. We are interested in thought that comes from perspectives outside of the non-profit industrial complex and that takes a grassroots approach. We are also distinct in that we are focused on communal rather than individual creativity. Creative Ecosystems believes that communal creativity is a tool for supporting Black agency, community, care, and futurity.

It’s Nice That: What are the major challenges you’re facing? Equally, what are the highlights of working on Creative Ecosystems so far?

Annika Hansteen-Izora: Holding the boundary of moving slowly is one of the biggest challenges. One of the values that’s important to me is to move at the rate of sustainability. The general energy around digital spaces is growing rapidly, to “move fast and break things.” I’m only interested in growing at a speed that allows for care to be centred. Creative Ecosystems are added to the directory on a slow and rolling basis.

I’d also say expanding Black Creative Ecosystems to locations outside of the US is a challenge that I’m excited to lean into. We’re open to submissions of Black Creative Ecosystems that support communal creativity rooted in radical Black thought as a method of both imagining and creating worlds that divest from practices of domination on a global scale.

The biggest highlight of working on Creative Ecosystems is seeing the wide range of ways that communal Black creative work is being created. These are spaces that are working outside of institutions, that are building our own tables. It’s inspiring, to say the least. What’s been an even greater highlight is seeing artists connect with one another using Creative Ecosystems, and go from an online connection towards one that is committed to deeper communal learning and collaboration.

It’s Nice That: What can the creative industry do to support your intention and mission?

Annika Hansteen-Izora: Share Creative Ecosystems with your circles to help us connect with other communal Black creative spaces so that we can continue growing. Follow Black Creative Ecosystems on Instagram at @creativeecosystems. Investment is also the best way we can grow, those interested in supporting can reach out at blackcreativeecosystems@gmail.com.

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About the Author

Liz Gorny

Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating from the University of Bristol, they worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, Indie magazine and design studio Evermade.

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