Staying Curious with Dario Calmese

By Aisha Hassan on November 9, 2021

A true visionary and mogul of the Arts, Dario Calmese, is a New York City based, urbanist, artist, brand consultant, and director, working at the connexion of art, academia, and fashion. With a history rooted in the Performing Arts, Dario utilises the mechanisms of movement and psychology to explore the world around us. The magnitude of professional accolades that Dario has achieved is admirable and includes the role of resident Show Director for Pyer Moss, as well as the first Black photographer to shoot a cover for Vanity Fair.

In a more recent context, Adobe Creative Cloud called upon Dario’s expertise to create a set of pre-sets, that seek to ensure the accurate depiction of darker skin tones throughout the program. Additionally, Dario has also established a profound and quite awe-inspiring podcast named The Institute of Black Imagination, pivoting in on topics that broaden the scope of innovation for black and brown creatives. Dario welcomes a range of guests who embody that sense of extraordinaire and thus, nurtures a community of critical thinkers and introspective individuals.

It was our pleasure to sit down with Dario and discuss some of the numerous interests that resonate with him and how that has manifested throughout his career and own personal reflections.

Your podcast, The Institute of Black Imagination is described to reflect “a tribe of mentors, from the pool of black genius” - housing myriad perspectives, angles, and experiences. How do you go about choosing your guests for each episode?

I think overall I look at the podcast as not simply a podcast, but as an oral history archive. With the Institute of Black Imagination, I’m not only speaking to people that I have previous relationships with, but individuals that I think are doing extraordinary work and that don’t always align to the demands of capital. And by that, I mean, individuals that are doing work that can’t be easily packaged and sold for entertainment however, that does not mean the work that they are doing is any less than incredible. For example, Courtney Cogburn who is the psychologist at Columbia University, has actually created a race via art immersion experience and I love that, because she’s leveraging technology in order to create empathy via this digital metaverse. I just find that extraordinary and I’m always thinking about, you know, 12/13-year-old Dario back in St Louis, who was looking for another geeky version of himself that he just couldn’t find. So, you know I really wanted to explore the multiplicities of being, for Black people, but then also people who are iconic class. People who are really rethinking their professions and how they move throughout the world, and you know, people that aren’t always celebrities.

In one of your episodes, you expressed that the podcast is fostering “the beginning of a pedagogy… a learning framework - an auditory mandala that people can focus on to ignite their imagination (particularly for Black and Brown people)”. What was the process behind developing the intention for the podcast?

So, that had to be with Xenobia Bailey because we were on some crazy wavelength, just running our mouths and using all this crazy vocabulary. But really that’s it, The Institute of Black Imagination originally started as an art project. Like literally a two-month pop-up to explore design but while I was pursuing funding for that, I just wanted to get started on something so, that’s how I launched the podcast. But when I say an “auditory mandala”, I’m saying something for people to focus in on…but then in that focus, hopefully unlock a part of themselves that maybe they previously did not have access to.

One of the underlying elements of The Institute of Black Imagination is access and one of the things I love about creating the podcast, is that it’s really become a community building exercise. When we began, there was no cultural conversation around Black imagination or even radical Black imagination. So, by establishing this auditory community, what it does is creates a vocabulary and linguistic exploration around Black imagination, Black thought, and Black perceptivity. What’s important about the power of words and vocabulary is that if you don’t have the words to speak to your lived experience, then it actually becomes invisible and un-utterable. So, in that way, with The Institute of Black Imagination we really are carving out frames and frameworks for people to express their own perceptivity. For instance, this is something I learnt in protest. Not only is protest about speaking against a collective gripe, but it also allows for people to unify around vocabulary and say to themselves - what exactly are we trying to get at? What are we actually seeing here and what’s the best way to speak to it?

How are you hoping to progress with the podcast in the future?

So, first of all, The Institute of Black Imagination is my life’s work. The podcast is totally the beginning. Actually, on October 3rd not only did we relaunch the podcast, but we also launched digital. So, our digital interactive platform again speaks to access because The Institute of Black Imagination started with an archive. I inherited over 2000 books from a famous, Black, multi-hyphenate artist Geoffrey Holder. In acquiring those books, I really just wanted to provide a way to give access to other Black and Brown creatives to use this information. This kind of blueprint or roadmap to creativity that he left behind. So, by launching digital it’s going to get us closer to do that. And then in the spring, we are going to launch that physical space as well. So, we’re really moving from audio, to digital and then into physical space, pretty rapidly. And by launching digital first it really allows us to speak to, not only those who can’t physically make it, but to the broader diaspora which is something that we’re also really interested in – you know Black diversity and/or decentralising Blackness.

Tell us about your collaboration with Adobe Lightroom and what that meant for you, your community, and your work.

So, the collaboration with Adobe was to create pre-sets specifically calibrated for people with melanated skin. Just for me personally, my initial response was, intimidation – just from a technical standpoint. Like, how do you even create pre-sets for starters, but then what was really cool was they divided it into different skin tones so fairer skin tones, medium skin tones and then deeper skin tones. They were also looking for another photographer and I told the people at Adobe that you really need to have a Black woman’s eyes here as well. They need to be a part of this conversation, so I sent them a couple of names and one was my friend Laylah Amatullah Barrayn, who they also loved and so I was able to bring her in. So, Summer Murdoch did the fairer skin tones, Laylah took the deeper skin tones, and I did the medium skin tones. So, I thought “ok cool I’m kind of medium skin tone, so that works” but it was also about knowing that it’s not only people with African descents that I’m speaking to, but also people with South Asian descent as well as, Arab people. So yeah, the Adobe team were so forthcoming and amazing people to work with but even beyond that, what I really loved was that it came from Adobe. They saw that this was a moment to begin to correct or proliferate the landscape of photography through liberation. Speaking to the historical racism that is coded in the technology of photography and how important it plays a part in scaling and spreading oppression. So, even if I’m wanting to take a photograph, I can’t be any better than the technology I’m using. I can’t be better than the instrument that I’m working with, so if it’s embedded within it – I have no choice but to perpetuate it.

I think it also relates to how important data is. I mean this is slightly tangential, but I’m also a professor at Parson’s and I gave a course on technology, race and algorithmic bias and we spoke about facial recognition technology. Black and Brown individuals are significantly not recognised and misgendered in this type of technology. Whereas Caucasian and Asian individuals had a 98-99 per cent accuracy compared to Black men, who had 82 per cent accuracy and Black women with a 79 per cent accuracy. So, I asked the students - ok if this is the data, thinking about who is in the room and building this software, if we released self-driving cars into the world tomorrow, what’s going to happen? Black and Brown people are going to suffer a disproportionate number of deaths. Not because the cars are racist but because of the inputs and data. So, I say this as slightly tangential but related to this concept of working with Adobe – this project begins to correct a history of Black invisibility, particularly in relation to technology and data. It says no. Not everyone is the same. It opposes the notion that “oh I don’t see race”, by saying no, I actually see you. You’re not invisible. I see you and because I see you, I now know you have specific needs so let’s address those needs. And you know capital doesn’t always allow for that specificity because capital always demands efficiency. So, now there’s this need for un-doing to take place within the technological field and Adobe specifically addresses that.

Photography By Dario Calmese; Styled by Elizabeth Stewart

Last year you were Vanity Fair’s first Black photographer to shoot a cover in its 106-year history, please tell us more about how that opportunity found its way to you.

It was pretty straightforward actually, I had been shooting for Vanity Fair for a little over a year at that point and this was probably my fifth shoot with them. I started shooting with Billy Porter and then shot subsequent people after that. What’s interesting about that story is that it really speaks to why it’s important to have diverse people at the table. Because that very first opportunity that I had to shoot for Vanity Fair was because of a Black stylist Anatolli Smith, who was working there. He put my name in the hat when they asked if he knew any young photographers to shoot Billy Porter and just that one act allowed me to show up and exhibit my talent. So, I just want to be very clear that although I was the first Black photographer to shoot for Vanity Fair, that does not mean that I was the first Black photographer who could have shot a cover for Vanity Fair.

couture one: wat u iz. pyer moss couture 2021 runway show- Directed by Darío Calmese

As a multihyphenate and someone with a plethora of experience - for aspiring creatives, what tips can you share on how to navigate multiple mediums and thus, grapple with trying to excel in each of them.

The short answer is to stay curious and to keep dreaming. That’s what I end every podcast episode with, cause that’s really it. But the reason I mention this, is because I feel that you have to try a lot of things and be curious about the world, yourself, and what is flowing through you. That then allows you to follow the path that resonates most with you. Maybe I could’ve been a medical doctor but clearly, I didn’t care enough to pursue it so that wasn’t my path. But I did dance, I did sing, and I did play the piano. And the thing is, I’m not a concert pianist, I’m not a concert dancer but just knowing a good amount of these things really grew into something greater for me. I think when you’re existing in this world you also really want some level of resonance. You know, you want people to appreciate the way you dance or have people like to hear you play piano. But these things are all cumulative and for me it still simply boils down to - stay curious and keep dreaming.

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