Diary of a Survivalist: Dionne Lee’s Signals and Reversals

New Takes

Diary of a Survivalist: Dionne Lee’s Signals and Reversals

By Maddie Klett February 26, 2020

New Takes is a column written by emerging writers on emerging artists as part of the Art Practical Residency. One resident is nominated from a pool of recent graduates from California College of the Arts, who holds the position for one year. Our current New Takes contributor and Art Practical resident is Maddie Klett.

Speaking at The Lab in December 2019, theorist Silvia Federici addressed the very transport that brought me to the lecture that day: the train. The adage she referenced, “See Something Say Something,” has become the prevailing public safety strategy for urban underground systems across the country. It is an approach by city governments that encourages suspicion of other riders instead of trust, where the assumption that a stranger might hurt you outweighs the benefit of striking up a conversation with another commuter, or feeling that someone would help you if you needed it. I often sensed what Federici described in my former commute from Berkeley to downtown San Francisco for my 9-to-5: BART feels like an extension of the workplace, where a certain amount of isolation and self-interest is required for self-preservation.

Federici’s observation came up again in conversation with artist Dionne Lee in her Oakland studio. For her recent body of photographic work, Lee has culled imagery from survival handbooks, as well as from her own ventures in firestarting, the alphabetic signaling system of semaphore, and dowsing (a technique of using metal rods to locate groundwater). The history, imagery, and culture of survival skills are central to Lee’s work. She’s curious about what skills are necessary for human survival, who has access to them, and thus who is positioned to survive.

Dionne Lee. North, 2019; gelatin silver print, graphite; 11 x 14 inches. Courtesy of the Artist.

In her investigations of wilderness survival, Lee is also asking how one would live if urban mechanisms like BART and PG&E and cell service failed us. I brought up “See Something Say Something” because the need for survival skills within those infrastructures of modern convenience can feel vital, albeit in a way that severs human connection to one another and the earth in favor of expertise in navigating the cutthroat hierarchies of corporate tech/sales/art/education/everything.

Even as an Oaklander dependent on trains, phones, and the rest of it, Lee simultaneously seeks knowledge about the natural world. She compiles images from, or inspired by, her collection of treasured how-to manuals for wilderness survival into what resemble the pages of a scout’s well-loved scrapbook. In the darkroom, Lee collages these images into black-and-white prints, sometimes reverting tones or solarizing the photosensitive paper by bringing the unfixed paper into the light to slow down the development process. A pinkish-purple rectangle of unfixed paper sits at the center of North (2019), which Lee has overlaid with an image of her hands held toward the sky, thumbs touching, which is a technique for measuring the distance between the Big Dipper and the North Star.

Dionne Lee. Between your hands in a hearth, 2019; gelatin silver print, graphite; 11 x 14 inches. Courtesy of the Artist.

Locating the North Star was a critical skill for African Americans who sought freedom from enslavement by escaping to the northern United States during the Civil War. This navigation tool—one that only requires two hands and decent eyesight—was an important lesson for Lee, as its simplicity transcends a person’s position in time and place and power. It is a tool that can be learned or given but not taken away; it will survive a technological apocalypse and will exist as long as humans inhabit the earth and the earth spins around the sun. 

Lee writes and draws directly onto photo paper with graphite, dodging words or lines during the exposure process to create gradient effects. For Between your hands in a hearth (2019), she writes short directions for firestarting on the paper before exposing it to an image of a smoke spire. Blurry and grouped from disparate passages, the words are no longer instructions a reader can logically follow, but are annotations that Lee made for herself. The personal, handwritten jottings are direct transmissions of knowledge from the artist’s head, where it is available should she need to make a fire without matches or a lighter.

At one point in our conversation, Lee laughed and told me that firestarting is “really hard.” Still, unlike the fossil fuels and precious metals that power our cars and smartphones—natural resources that are rapidly diminishing—skills like firestarting and wilderness navigation have a staying power; they can be shared between people and endlessly iterated. It’s the egalitarian potential of this knowledge that seems most interesting to Lee. While the replicable nature of such skills may imply that everyone should be able to survive if Google Maps fails, this knowledge isn’t or hasn’t been made widely available outside of niche groups. While Indigenous peoples have crafted and utilized such techniques for thousands of years, wilderness survival skills are now often learned on weekends—hobbies pursued by those with adequate time and means, and also with the sense they’ll be unharmed or even helped in nature (should they need it) by whoever they encounter. In a country with a history of racial segregation and class hierarchies, where lines of exclusion are cut in complex and nuanced ways, safety within rural areas has not historically been a guarantee for people of color.

Dionne Lee. Broken Signal, 2019; gelatin silver print, graphite; 12 x 16 inches. Courtesy of the Artist.

Lee reminds me that in the history of Black resistance these tools of survival were essential. She points out that Harriet Tubman was a skilled medic and herbalist who provided care to the many people she assisted across the Underground Railroad, where a visit to a conventional doctor or hospital was impossible. The acknowledgment that African Americans have lived and worked in rural areas for generations, and have deep ties to the natural world despite centuries of forced removal from it, is an overlooked piece of Black history and culture. With Black culture often visualized in urban spaces, this aspect of everyday life—plant-filled living spaces or gardens—is often less visible.

Still, perhaps the hidden nature of that knowledge is itself a means of survival. If these skills live in one’s head and are shared between family members and friends, they cannot be exploited or taken away. Lee and I discussed the aspect of placelessness in her works, or her decision to omit or obscure information in her personal collection of clippings and notes. In this way, her works diverge from the extensive specifications normally found in field journals. Like the beam of light that emits from the aerial photographs appearing in Lee’s Broken Signal (2019)—a technique for signaling distress with a mirror—Lee decides when her wilderness knowledge appears and disappears. Such obfuscation ensures a certain level of resilience, and opens up the possibility for nimble acts of community building.


  1. Banner image: Dionne Lee. Untitled (map), 2018 (still); single channel video; 5:38 min. Courtesy of the Artist.

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