Summer 2021 Seed Grant Funding

Submitted by Jessica Stokes

The project Wingin’ It: A Material Re-Storying the Ramayana is an attempt to make material and tangible parts of a speculative cinema piece and role-playing game crafted around the vulture Jatayu. An exalted character in the Ramayana epic tradition, the vulture Jatayu is known for his courage and loyalty. When Ravana abducts Sita and whisks her away in his flying chariot, it is the fearless Jatayu who tries to stop him. An aerial battle ensues, but Ravana eventually prevails, chopping off Jatayu’s wing, disabling him from fight and flight, and eventually life itself. In our episode of the speculative cinema project, Forest Tales, Jatayu is resurrected with a prosthetic wing, only to face the extinction of his kind in the present. Audience members are presented with a speculative cinema episode, which is followed by a role-playing game, where we wonder together about the queer utopias that are latent in our impaired landscapes and disabled ecologies.

On textured paper is an illustration of a woman sleeping inside a seed that is sprouting from two sides.The cross-section of the seed reveals a fleshy green inside, in which she lays. The outside of the seed is covered in a hive-like pattern in greens and browns.

I am Jessica Stokes, a disabled poet/performer/educator/scholar pursuing my PhD at Michigan State University. I analyze contemporary ecopoetics’ crip methods for climate survival and read into the experimental poetics of those who have historically been experimented upon. I am currently working on the Wingin’ It project with Anuj Vaidya. Anuj is a teacher/student of performance/media and multispecies thinking, currently pursuing a PhD in Performance Studies at UC Davis. Deeply invested in process and collaboration, his practice is committed to challenging normativity, cultivating joy, and building community, with both human and more-than-human worlds. Together, we have been working on a transnational conversation that addresses the entanglements of vultures and plastics.

As Anuj says, the most environmentally-friendly film is one that never gets made. Our film now, then, is a project and a game. These “scenes” have taken place as moments of collaborative storytelling online at the Society for Disability Studies Annual Conference, at MSU as part of the HIVES Research Workshop and Speaker Series, and through an event put on by the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco this summer. We have a few future scenes in the works. Participants across these locales took part in a role-playing game that asks players to grapple with the environmental impacts of each of their choices as they select elements of Jatayu’s prosthetic wing, from its material components to its design to its shape. As a result of the process, participants each had wildly different wing designs, rendered by audience members or paid student-artists at each event.

A black and what sketch speculates on what a bamboo wing, covered in self-regenerating mycelial plastic, could look like. It has a strong steampunk vibe, with heavy pen strokes showing bars of bamboo covered in the signatures of the volunteers who created it.

In the game, each category players could choose from came with a list of potential known outcomes of each choice. Unbeknownst to the players, there was also a table of latent consequences that would become active at the end of each session. For example, under the category of “Labor,” if players chose to use domestic labor to make their wing, the known implications were “Increase employment by 10%” and “Insistence on local production increases stigma against outsiders–advance nationalism slider by one category.” And one of the unknown consequences was “The Jatayu’s Wing project becomes a union project, increase interdependence by 10% and reduce Wealth Gap by 5%.” We used these layers of outcomes and consequences to generate in depth discussions with players at the end of the game about what it means to try to imagine just and accessible futures within material constraints. People often lingered after we ended a session or shared contact information to keep the conversation going.

            Each image we have created represents hours of conversation between students, professors, disabled artists, and museum patrons. These conversations were on climate change, economics, nationalism, and other difficult to approach topics. Through a digital humanities framework of storytelling and gaming, people contemplated multiple futures.

On a creamy pink-orange background, a rainbow vulture fans a wing upward. The wing ascends in gentle curls, moving from swoop to swoop with gentle flow and transitions between red, purple, pink, and orange. Occasional rivets can be seen protruding from the wings.

Working with the DH Seed Grant, we set out to further complicate conversations around the shaping of Jatayu’s wing while also increasing the accessibility of the project. We wanted tangible wings to make game play more accessible for blind and low vision players while grappling ourselves with the environmental implications of our choices. In the gameplay, people always had the option of choosing to 3D print Jatayu’s wing, but through the grant we were able to more deeply consider the implications of that choice within and outside of the game.

Using DH Seed Grant funding in preparation for making material models of the work, I took several courses over the summer on designing for 3D printing in Udemy. However, as our lengthy collaboration on this project makes space for ourselves as growing, changing humans, I was slowed in my learning about 3D printing as I 3D printed my dear daughter Cordelia this summer.

I quickly crashed into issues with design without a deeper background in the subject and while crashing in between sleepless nights with this one. Using my shaky disabled hands to drag polygons led to vastly uneven wings, and my new carpal tunnel from holding a newborn compounded the strain. But this project has always been undergirded by a commitment to accessibility and interdependence not just for players but for us as makers so as these problems arose we pivoted our plans.

Speaking with Dr. Amanda Tickner who is deeply involved with 3D printing here at MSU, I had a conversation about the many material choices available in 3D printing and those specifically used here at MSU. The conversation sounded a lot like our RPG’s gameplay as players analyze costs and benefits of their choices for Jatayu’s wing. In this conversation, I learned about the possibility of seaweed 3D printing. Yay environment! Good luck dealing with that smell. I learned about offgassing in 3-D printing with the materials more commonly used here as well as other environmental considerations. While resin based printing renders details vividly its off-gassing is particularly toxic and while PLA another material used here is cornstarch based it has its own shortcomings (don’t trust it to print a little diver for your fishbowl as it will deteriorate within).

This additional information has made its way into the production game tables as well, in such latent consequences as “Despite assumptions of recyclability, practical recycling of 3D printing waste such as supports and misprints isn’t common: Increase pollution in oceans and soil by .25%”

As this project continues to stretch and grow in ways anticipated and not, I am currently working interdependently with multiple organizations at Michigan State University on materializing our versions of Jatayu’s wings. I am bringing on student artists through the Tower Guard in order to create reasonable facsimiles of Jatayu’s many wings. This is also working to support the Creativity in the Time of Covid 19 Grant by offering them a reasonable timeline for making their own future exhibits accessible.