Describing the narrative Burton says it will involve an advanced civilization who live light years from Earth. They receive a signal that indicates life exists somewhere else in the universe and they send an explorer, Femi de Ocho Rios, to investigate. The world she visits has been hit by an ecological disaster and while there she meets a human, the likes of which no one has ever seen before: a young white woman called Maya. "Femi is forced to recalibrate all that she knows of her planet and her history," Burton says. "She must also decide what to do with this alien."
Burton says he's been an Afrofuturist and was drawn to it as a child, since before he even knew the term. The sci-fi genre features as a prominent aesthetic in the show and also informs its themes, too. Burton explains that modernity, its culture and global economies, have been mapped through a Western perspective negating non-European, especially African, cultures.
For Burton Afrofuturism is a way to reframe this and look at a what if. What if a new society emerged from ideas of modernity and culture arising from the communities of the African Diaspora? What would that look like?
"This starts a completely different conversation, so rather than decolonization the project plays with an alternative or restart for African Diaspora history, where the impact of slavery, colonialism and destabilizing migration do not exist," explains Burton to Creators. "I was also interested in the power play at the heart of colonial writing. Livingstone and Columbus are two archetypal historical encounters that I unconsciously reverse. In this project, the Afronaut is the discoverer, the explorer is Same looking for alien Others. But I don't want to restate a racial binary far from it, I am conscious of the disappointment and confusion of postcolonial populations when their rulers became as dictatorial and flawed as colonial masters, so I want to ask old questions around morality and choice in, hopefully, a unique context."
Burton and his collaborators, which include visual artist and illustrator Alejandro Padron and animator Roy Williams, have focused the main aesthetic of the sets and costumes on traditional African and Diaspora cultures. Researching the types of textile patterns, architecture, music and colors associated with these. But there are other influences, too.
"Femi's planet is a coalescence of African Diaspora cultures, borrowings from European forms, advanced technology, communalism and far out individual style," notes Burton. "I guess it incarnates the essence of jazz. We see influences and styles that are on the one hand familiar to earthlings but on the other, morphed by time and technological opportunity. This shapes the visual style, sound and movement so that in the outward expression of culture. We want to suggest as much as possible through public ritual, through music, lighting and above all costume. Science is not the form of knowledge in her world. The agency of ghosts benign or malign, are a critical ingredient in the story."
With his collaborators Burton has been experimenting with immersive technologies too. His idea for the show is that it will happen in a single room, and will utilize 3D sound, shadow capture, and digital projection to create the sets and bring the planetary environments to life. He also wants to use sound, dance, and technology to trigger FX to create a futuristic feel. Animation will also feature, and this will be available to be experienced separately as a VR piece.
"For me and for the artists Afrofuturism offers an alternative world where you can start to play," notes Burton. "That play may lead to dystopian or utopian reflections but at heart it's an attempt to speak from an alternative space. I think more and more people of color are feeling the straightjacket of past identities no longer fit for purpose. Connected to the past, and loving our heritage we also wish to affirm our alterity, our plurality."
Edson Burton is a studio resident at Watershed's Pervasive Media Studio. Find out more about Burton and the show here.