It started, as most things do in this era of digital habitation, with a post. Amidst the 2020 uprisings in support of Black life, artist and writer Annika Hansteen-Izora, created a list of Black Creative Ecosystems, housed in a humble Google Sheet, to redirect the overflowing public donations to bail funds into a multitude of initiatives that prioritized Black trans, queer and nonbinary folks, and Black women. After experiencing an overwhelming wave of support for the spreadsheet, Hansteen-Izora tweeted asking if anyone could help turn the home of Creative Ecosystems into something more robust. Partnering with NYC-based studio Athletics, they collaborated over the next 18 months to bring us a “digital garden” and directory of these ecosystems. The design centers on connection, its primary purpose being to connect Black creatives to each other.
While the internet has provided limitless ways to connect us, it also reflects the complex power structures that dominate our offline lives. Hansteen-Izora explains that when “thinking about the architecture of online spaces, and how much Black creative thought has impacted the internet… [the number of] Black online spaces… were very few.” At its inception, the internet was seen as a place to start anew, to rectify the inequalities of our IRL existence, but instead, it sadly grew to reflect those inequalities. Dominated by white men, many of the platforms we use today have been designed to uphold, rather than deconstruct, white supremacy. Hansteen-Izora conceptualized Black Creative Ecosystems as a way to remedy that.
The internet has provided limitless ways to connect us, but it also reflects the complex power structures that dominate our offline lives.
The online space dedicated to Black creative thought is disruptive and parallels Hansteen-Izora’s work at Somewhere Good, a startup that is building a social space centered around people of color and thinking about what community, slowness and safety might look like within this context. Hansteen-Izora says there’s a correlation between these two facets of their work, explaining that both initiatives are “reimagining what space tending and space creation can look like online.”
Hansteen-Izora uses the term ‘digital garden’ to describe the overall project of Black Creative Ecosystems. It’s a way to represent that the site is a digital space “tended to by a collective group of people.” In this metaphor, the site contains ‘seeds’ of photos, videos, and text that are rooted in the overall ethos of growth and sustainability. While platforms like Instagram also describe themselves as digital gardens, Hansteen-Izora notes that the social media app has been “repeatedly critiqued for censoring the content of Black creators that speak out against anti-Black racism.” Hansteen-Izora cites the work of Octavia E Butler, Adrienne Maree Brown’s “Emergent Strategy” and Dr Chelsea Mikael Frazier’s “Black Feminist Thought: A Manifesto” as instrumental in challenging the supremacy that digital gardening is usually centered around.
For Hansteen-Izora, an ecosystem (used to describe the Black-led initiatives that are featured as part of the garden) is all about mutual support. “An ecosystem is when many individual parts are coming together to create a system—the larger system supports the individuals that are a part of it,” they say. Though the term “ecosystem” might seem to exist between a community and a network, Hansteen-Izora is very clear that Black Creative Ecosystems is not a community in itself, but part of a larger constellation for people to find different ecosystems that they can be part of. The duality of representing individual ecosystems that form a wider collective system is something that Black Creative Ecosystems does to great effect, simultaneously holding space for singularity and plurality through its design.
Hansteen-Izora often uses nature-focused language to describe the ecosystem they are nurturing: the platform brings together “ecosystems” within a “digital garden,” while recognizing that the garden itself can “move through periods of rot, weeds and death.” They view the natural and digital worlds as informing each other in many ways—nature repeats itself in a lot of our different systems, including online.
Hansteen-Izora comes from a family of plant-tenders, and they appreciate the ethos gardening has embedded in their understanding of the world. “Being able to care about something outside myself is actually really beautiful. It’s this cycle of individual and communal care,” they say. “Caring for plants helps me understand that I’m part of a larger system that is also going on to support me.” Much of the language around this digital garden is about rejecting white supremacist ideals of what a digital space can be, moving away from a culture of perfectionism, and urgency. Gardening helps because it’s rooted in “peace, calm and taking one’s time to really learn about how these systems move.”
In her book Women, Culture and Politics, Angela Davis writes that the word radical means “to grasp by the root.” Unsurprisingly, looking through the directory, you can see that many of the ecosystems represented are embedded in Black radical thought. Many are grassroots endeavors and are comprised of collectives rather than a singular creative genius. “It’s becoming very clear to people that we need each other to not just survive, but thrive—that’s directly against a lot of Western hyper-individualism where you just care about yourself and keep pushing,” Hansteen-Izora says. It’s clear that Black Creative Ecosystems is in itself a care practice, brought about by connecting creatives to each other. “To stars on the map, that can be like a guiding light in thinking about your creativity and your imaginative work,” they say.
“It’s becoming very clear to people that we need each other to not just survive, but thrive.”
The resulting redesigned directory is steeped in intention. A far cry from its origins as a Google Sheet, the website reframes how this complexity of information is communicated to the world. Allison Connell, design director at Athletics who led the project, emphasized the importance of design in reducing labor for those using the site as well as those managing it. “Part of the application form is trying to reduce the administrative work from somebody on the Black Creative Ecosystems side—the information they fill out automatically gets included on their profile afterwards,” Connell explains.
In spreadsheet form, the directory was designed to help people locate potential collaborators and give support to Black creatives through voluntary, monetary, or material donations. Connell says the intention of the site has shifted towards facilitating connection between bourgeoning individual ecosystems. Location became a key factor in differentiating between the ecosystems and is one of the ways that recommendations are linked at the bottom of each listing, guiding the user to find the next ecosystem in their area. I quickly became immersed in the work of Black Women of Print (location: the internet), and then was led to Intelligent Mischief, a creative studio unleashing Black imagination to shape the future.
The visual language makes bold use of contrast—vivid colors differentiate from the underlying black and white color scheme, while the use of two primary typefaces heighten the user experience by switching when the user hovers over an ecosystem’s name. The site is sparsely designed, with a handful of images scattered around the site’s layout, gently bringing the identity of each ecosystem to life without drawing too much attention away from the holistic experience. Clicking on a listing, visitors encounter a moment of pause before they are whisked away to the next page—a deliberate design feature that emphasizes slowness of movement. Multiplicity is inherent to the search function, which allows you to also search by theme, space and location; another nod to the pluralistic thinking behind the site design.
Hansteen-Izora says that sustainable growth of the garden looks like expanding the team that supports Black Creative Ecosystems, adding more collectives from underrepresented areas like the South or Midwest, and in the future flowering into the global diaspora. As part of the world of Black radical thought, Hansteen-Izora sees this as another orbiting moon. “There have always been Black, creative people using their art to dream up alternative futures,” they say. The Black Arts Movement, The Dark Room Collective, Where We At Black Women Artists are just a few examples of this, and when intersected with online archives like Black Film Archive, and Black Music History Library, the internet provides a way to map Black thought in new and exciting ways. “This is just another rendition of that, another loop in the ongoing and ever-growing spiral of that work.”