A string of questions: What is the discourse of power that we subscribe to? Is it constrained by capital or physical strength? Is it supernatural or material? Where is it located? Who participates?
Further: What are the material conditions that underpin these power plays? The currencies, objects, commodities? How physically present are they? Or, how virtual are they?
In Atlanta, three recent shows and a dance performance provoked these questions concerning the dynamics of power structures. Varying in methods of representation and subversion, the works materialize the many ways in which power pervades the multiple facets of our lives: spiritual, physical, economic, electrical, corporate, digital. While each of these, the exhibitions and performance, taken on their own offer a perhaps more simplistic notion of power, limited to a particular variable (some more limited than others), taken together, these works can lead the viewer to consider the complexities of our contemporary globalized world’s power structures.
Let this be an argument for synthesis. Individual artists and works do not exist in a vacuum. They live in an assemblage which the artist, discourse, institution, and viewer create. In keeping with my experience attending the 9/50 Summit at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center which brought together arts organizations from around the southeast region, it seems important to address the issue of making connections. Of particular interest here are the ways in which the region determines the shows and the works within them.
Something that seemed to sit beneath the words spoken at the panel “Does Regionalism Exist?” at the Summit was the acknowledgement of one’s power or lack thereof. I realize how redundant and out-of-date this may sound in its Foucauldian inclinations and hints of institutional critique. However, I can’t deny that the ways in which I saw these works as an assemblage prompted the question: What is the meta-discourse here? As both a practicing visual/performance artist and a writer, I am always attempting to make sense of what I’m looking at, why it’s been placed before me, or why I’m before it. Sometimes it seems like there is no rhyme or reason to it.
The institutions that house the exhibitions/performance I mention here run the gamut – from DIY resourcefulness to larger budget non-profit institution. Layers of authority and administration surround these works many times over — the specific histories, practices, and objects addressed as well as the sites in which they lived temporarily.
Simone Leigh’s solo show Gone South at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center offers the most complex rendering of power relations, providing the viewer with an image of the materiality, social history, economics, and spirituality of the South.
In Leigh’s installation Cupboard, she directly references the Mississippi restaurant Mammy’s Cupboard which is featured in the 1941 Edward Weston photograph Mammy’s Cupboard, Natchez, Mississippi. Using steel as the armature, Leigh creates what would be the skirt that the viewer/restaurant-goer walks into. However, instead of taking a seat and ordering pancakes, the viewer confronts Leigh’s 2013 work Topsy Turvy, which here reads as female reproductive anatomy. Since this biology is made from symbols of currency (the cowrie shell), stepping inside the skirt provokes anxieties. In the installation’s juxtaposition of histories, economies, infrastructure, and architecture, Leigh makes apparent the complexities of labor that undergird our current structures of capital.
The video work my works, my dreams, must wait until after hell, made with Chitra Ganesh, seems to solidify this reading in its juxtaposition to Cupboard. We see a woman’s exposed back and then notice that her head is covered in stones. The back’s subtle movement shows she is breathing, but it seems only barely so. In contradistinction to the suspended cluster in Cupboard, the cluster of stones weighs the woman’s head to the ground, burying her.
Across town at The Low Museum, a potted plant in a virtual corporate office makes its way into actual space. In one instance, the potted plant is blocked from view by window blinds. A Starbucks cup is turned over in a virtual church. In an interplay of the virtual and actual, the digital and IRL, Cara Mayuski’s Area Moments confronts the viewer with a cheeky corporate (i.e., anonymous) visual language.
Commodities, if we’ve learned anything from Marx, have become virtual objects, divorced from the materials and labor that went into producing them. While Mayuski might not intend for this reading, (instead she focuses on the digital/IRL experience dichotomy), expanding the discussion of the virtual and actual makes for a compelling take on our everyday experience, with all of its social, political, and economic dimensions. She notes that in her research of spaces that have a “public or communal aspect to them,” she discovered that when she brought elements of these spaces together, they “created highly impersonal spaces that were culminations of mass produced and familiar elements.” 
Using the overhead balcony walkway of the performance space, Erik Thurmond and Nicholas Goodly created a viewing experience reminiscent of a Roman gladiator spectacle in their new work Meh Meh; the audience watches from above, the dancers move in the pit. At first Thurmond and Goodly, the dancers, displayed feats of physical prowess, strength, and agility. During this time, the two of them circle the floor, make eye contact with the audience, and point up towards particular members of the audience. As a commentary on masculinity and desire, Meh Meh brings together physical competition and gay club cruising. Meh meh means kiss kiss. However, when Thurmond and Goodly say it, scream it, at each other, the affectionate tone drops out and a bellowing of “ME” takes its place.
It seems important to mention where the piece premiered: the Druid Hills Baptist Church, a place that hosts the Pinch ’n’ Ouch Theatre, artist studios, and performances, notably that of Thurmond and Mary Grace Phillips. What are multiple levels of power plays here? Between the dancers? The dancers and the audience? Meh Meh and the church?
Meh Meh is a DIY and self-funded project that subverts many of the Atlanta arts funding institutions. It lies on the periphery of what is available to artists. Funny how this takes place in a church – the church standing in for one of the oldest economic and political institutions.
For Rich Gere, he started with a flashlight. He said that during the Millennium Juried Art Show (The Art Market Gallery in Knoxville, TN), he realized that “if the lights go out, we’re going to need light.” The flashlight: what you turn to in an emergency, a beacon of hope perhaps.
Gere says that this is all about the “management of power,” something that he has previously noted in interviews. This is apparent in the lightbulb of the flashlight’s beacon turned warning signal in the 2012 works We the People – Ideologies: four joules and We the People – Ideologies: ten thousand watts. Each Installed in a corner of Kibbee Gallery’s side gallery for his show Power Failure, the sculptures project audio at each other. For We the People – Ideologies: ten thousand watts, the audio is sourced from tape recordings of JFK’s and RFK’s conversations with the Ross Barnett, then governor of Mississippi, during the James Meredith Standoff. Also included are recordings of LBJ in conversation with James Meredith. For We the People – Ideologies: four joules, the audio is sourced from a 1929 recording of Charley Patton, a Mississippi Delta blues musician who was oftentimes barred from recording studios because of his race. The recording featured in the sculpture was made in Wisconsin, a place usually easier for black musicians to access.
While the gallery installation wasn’t particularly compelling, I find the gestures towards both optimism (the flashlight as symbol) and despair or regret (the historical fact of JFK/RFK/LBJ/Patton) to be important. Issues of access and economies of power are still critical to examine in our supposedly post-race country, something that Gere describes. 
Refusals and Competition
I’d like to end with gestures of refusal: Two of the works in the Simone Leigh’s Gone South show make reference to Southern spiritual traditions while rendering their intended functions obsolete. Her sculpture Jug, made from lizella clay that is found and produced locally, references face jugs, whose American history originates in 19th century slavery, are meant to ward off evil spirits. Her sculptural installation Tree also makes reference to the warding off of spirits; the collection of glass bottles is reminiscent of the Southern, particularly Louisianian, practice of making bottle trees, another product of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The bottle tree captures evil spirits in the upside-down-hanging bottles, keeping living inhabitants safe. However, these works of Leigh’s do not perform the task they are meant to. Jug is not adorned with a face that will scare the spirit. Tree’s bottles and jars hang right-side-up; only upside-down bottles are successful at trapping what should be trapped.
In terms of the constellation of sources and symbols in Gone South — the cowrie shell, which is made from molds of watermelons, the mammy skirt, the plantain in wedgewood blue, the face jug, the bottle tree — Leigh’s simultaneous use and abuse of these symbols yields a potent historical/cultural/post/colonial mélange. This interplay, one that also incited Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, forces us to pay attention to the intricacies of what we decide to use as visual markers.
I have to admit that each of these shows needs more words. Each taken on their own would provide multiple other readings and engagements. In a self-conscious disclosure of power, what I claim here institutes a precarious authority.
Though these shows don’t necessarily speak the same language or even share the same discourse, I find it intriguing that multiple shows within a brief span of time all examine some discourse of power that suggest underlying economies of desire and material resources. This may seem like a vague topic, and in a sense it really is. However, in an attempt to identify a guiding thread that might indicate some sort of collective unconscious, this is where I’ve arrived. Considering the limitations that constrain Atlantan artists and art institutions, a problem that is not atypical for artists and organizations in the US, it seems to me that these works make apparent the overarching economic, and therefore social, infrastructures which limit. Many artists in Atlanta are both energized by what appears as endless possibilities, yet frustrated by certain constraints, namely, I would say, competition amongst artists for a limited pool of resources; the “winner” is usually easy to predict and tends to stay the same.
 Email interview with Mayuski.
 Phone interview with Gere.
Over the coming months, the Bad at Sports blog is featuring quick glimpses of the art world as it exists in smaller cities across the country and around the world. Each glimpse is byway of some of the said city’s local characters, which include but are not limited to artists, curators, creative writers, and critics. In this Atlanta Day, Part 2 article, Bad at Sports correspondent Meredith Kooi has invited curator, performer, and arts administrator Priscilla Smith to examine some features of the city of Atlanta and its arts community: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Since I moved to Atlanta (this is Meredith talking) to start my PhD, I’ve been trying to make sense of this city. Usually, I use the space of my monthly writing for Bad at Sports as an opportunity to think with and through the art, performance, etc. that I witness and participate in here. Being from Chicago, ATL was foreign to me; I didn’t understand the ways in which it worked and all the complexities that determine it as the city it is. In this post, following Part I which examined “institutional legacy and memory,” Priscilla Smith takes on some of what might have lead Atlanta to where it is now and offers a few projects that maybe it, and we, should look to as examples of ways to keep working. Smith, a native to ATL, offers her perspective on this place, what it has to offer, and, maybe, what we could do without.
Now, Priscilla Smith:
Context: I got invited to give Bad at Sports my take on “the scene” in Atlanta. “What a Great Opportunity,” I thought. “It will be a Great Chance for Me to Reflect,” I thought. 1,000 words? No problem.
50% too long and six days after my self-imposed deadline, it’s still incomplete but I have to stop somewhere. Distilling my current experience as an art maker, producer, and participant in a city where I’ve spent my whole life is a bigger job than I’d imagined.
It’s only in the past three or four years that an Atlanta art patron has had to make a deliberate choice from a substantial selection of openings, lectures, plays, dance, music, immersive performance art (all of some respectable level of quality, ingenuity, or both) on a Thursday. It used to be that there would be a couple of visual art events a month, the Nutcracker, the Symphony, and two or three theaters with subscription seasons of “regional premieres.”
It had been a truism that, in order for an Atlanta artist or performer to “make it,” she’d have to leave Atlanta to fatten her resume, then come back to be be-laurel-ed: the Returning Art Hero. Nowadays, an artist can keep quite busy right here.
Not that all this activity is yielding a livable wage for artists. A recent and credible article pointed out that Atlanta has the greatest discrepancy between Haves and Have Nots in the country. I suspect that the money had by the Haves is being spent elsewhere. Our lovely High Museum, with its permanent collection, gallery of African Art, current visiting exhibitions, etc., could fit into Chicago’s Art Institute more than three times. Chicagoans spend money at home.
Instead, Atlantans spend money here on dining – fine, medium, and coarse. We spend money at our biggest-ass malls — where the truest cross-section of our populace can be found. These places are huge, busy, and had very low vacancy rates during the worst of the current recession.
In contrast, many private gallerists — largely a passionate, admirable group — allow that for days on end the only person walking through the door is working for FedEx. It isn’t the “death of the gallery” Jerry Saltz so eloquently eulogized, though. He visits 30 a week. We might have 30 altogether.
Non-profits like WonderRoot, with the mission of “Uniting Artists and Communities to Inspire Positive Social Change,” connect patrons and artists. WonderRoot established Atlanta’s first c.s.a. (consumer supported art) project, a rare example of successfully implementing another community’s good idea (see Fear of Originality below).
The scene in Atlanta is a fluctuating series of artwalks and public art extravaganzas, explosions of creativity and bitter disappointments.
Pretty much like anywhere else.
And, like anywhere else, people have opinions. Here are some of mine about our “cultural assets.”
1. Atlanta is a hilly town in a deep forest. We don’t have to make anything to live in a place of extraordinary gorgeousness.
2. Approaching Downtown on the abominable and divisive divided highways (Interstates were deliberately placed so as to perpetuate racial segregation), the traveler has the feeling of approaching a “real city” where buildings scrape the sky in a great variety of configurations from Beaux-Artes marble and a Neo-Classical gold dome to Phillip Johnson’s Po-Mo IBM erection.
3. We’ve got a city center with a street scene with actual people in it. After years of ghost-townishness, there’s hope.
4. Exuberance – 1,000+ showed up at the grand opening of the city’s newest municipal gallery-cum-water-bill-payment-office.
6. Access – Artists of all forms can get their work before an audience; for example, a few significant spaces:
a. Whitespace – Generous genius Susan Bridges’ restored-to-within-an-inch-of-its-life Victorian mansion in the haute ‘hood Inman Park is a beacon for the stable-turned-ideal-gallery in the backyard showing an impressive variety of art and artists. Mind-bending performances often grace the patio and lawns and the low-ceilinged cellar, dubbed “Whitespec.”
b. Skwhirlhaus – Another act of generosity, the not-as-grand-but-equally-moving backyard venue founded by Maryn Whitmore “dedicated to providing a place where artists can challenge themselves artistically while striving to create an original, complete work.”
c. Art on the Atlanta BeltLine – “The largest temporary public art exhibition in the South” commissions work for the “largest urban redevelopment” project in the U.S. of A.
7. Growth – More galleries, more public art, more theaters, more artists, more dance, more environmental performances, more clubs, more original music, more, more, more
The Ugly/Noise at Eyedrum :
“Musicians” come from all over the world in search of a P.A., a Facebook post, and a dozen pairs of ears upon which to try their experiments and discoveries, from cranium-splitting amplification of metal-on-metal banging like Christian noise artist Scotty Irving (Clang Quartet) to the a-rhythmic acoustic plunkings of a guitar with each string tuned to G. Ugly like a Baroque pearl and twice as valuable.
The Truly Ugly/(Some) Public Art:
1. The “official” Olympic Torch sculpture–psuedo de-constructivist cheap-ass agglomeration of steel trusses and pre-fab stairs (it’s an embarrassment).
2. The un-“official” Olympic Torch (provenance indeterminate; lots of people mistake it for the real thing) – a 3-story bird cage with a turd on top.
3. Atlanta’s own Triumphal “Millenium Gate,” just like the arch in Paris, only it’s made of fake stucco and was erected as a vanity project (wait, I guess Napoleon wasn’t exactly humble) to adorn a private town built on the sludge of a defunct steel mill within the city limits.
So Ugly It’s Depressing:
1. Fear of Originality – The Chamber of Commerce, the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau, City Hall itself — all of these powerful entities look to what’s going on elsewhere and try to imitate others’ successful cultural forays without engaging the substantial resources of our own city. We pay consultants real money to tell us how better to run culture when spending money commissioning work here would go miles further.
2. Segregation – Aside from “the most segregated hour of the week” (church), the cultural life of Atlanta still struggles. However — While we’ve yet to develop audiences/patron groups that represent the full demographic profile of our cities or counties, things are changing. Every day. And addressing integration is a big reason why some of us stick around.
Older Non-Monumental Architecture. Atlanta has historically and hysterically torn down anything it felt like in order to put up something new, even if the old thing was pretty and the new thing ugly. I remember as a young adolescent becoming aware of cool old buildings and spotting one out of the corner of my eye as we drove by. Three days later it was gone, making way for a pretty bland federal courthouse. The building I glimpsed was only about 50 years old, but it had towers.
The good part is that someone pulled the string hanging above our heads, the light bulb lit up, and we’re tearing down less. Lo and behold, there’s an undiscovered cache of cool storefronts hiding under plastic signs and marquees in the underpopulated southern quarter of our re-bustling Downtown. Ebb and flow, pendulum swings . . .
Atlanta is a lot more like L.A. than New York. “Atlanta” often refers to a 13-county spread that can take four hours to traverse (or more) when traffic is bad–which is more and more of the time. As a result, there’s more interesting work being made and shown than anybody realizes. Just as the Major League Baseball team is headed to the suburbs, the ballet, the opera, theater companies, galleries, artists, and clubs speckle the map.
Salve for the Pain:
The city proper “Inside the Perimeter” (or ITP in local shorthand) has a growing population after horrible years of exurban migration.
And to end, the Noteworthy (An Idiosyncratic listing):
1. Dance: It’s everywhere – In the forests, on trucks, in (defunct) factories, crosswalks, and it’s challenging, authentic, conceptually dense, and breathtaking (Beacon Dance, Dance Truck, Glo ATL, Lucky Penny, Blake Beckham, Helen Hale, Dance Chance, Meredith Kooi).
2. Living Walls The City Speaks urban conference and mural-a-thon — now an annual event; some excellent and some awful big outdoor wall paintings done by artists from all over the globe, gallery shows of their work, a real change in public and institutional perceptions.
3. Beep Beep Gallery Owners’ success lead them to open a hugely popular bar “Mother.”
4. SUMPTUARY – A month-long series of installations and performances where refreshment sales generated income for presenting artists. It was Where It’s At when it was on.
7. Film Love
8. Poem 88
11. Doog Gallery
13. Radio 1690
Priscilla Smith became the executive director of Eyedrum Art and Music Gallery as a volunteer in 2009, and in November 2013, became Eyedrum’s first paid employee when she started drawing a salary. She has created and presented performance art works, solo and in collaboration, in the streets and galleries of Atlanta since the early 1980s. Her first public art intervention took place in 1986 when she performed “I’m Sorry,” in which she fabricated a deconstructed hoop skirt and apologized to passersby during the Atlanta “Tight Squeeze Festival.” Most recently she distributed envelopes of money to passersby in the guise of “Lovey Joy” for her ongoing project “What I Did With The Money” as a commission for Flux Projects. In 2013 she played Clara 2 in Oh! Fearsome Head!, part III at The Big Haus. Other recent appearances include her original work “87 Gestures” for Dance Chance Atlanta and as a curtain-raiser for Oh! Fearsome! Head!, part II. She was a founding company member of ACME Theater that from 1980 to 1990 presented original performance works ranging from improvisational contemporary opera to full-length original dramas. She created a closing performance event for the centennial symposium in observance of the 1906 Atlanta Race Riot, has collaborated with Beacon Dance and John Q, and directed and produced over 35 evenings of student-created dramatic works at Horizons School and The Atlanta School in 21 years as an educator. She has served as performance coordinator for Art on the Atlanta BeltLine and was co-producer and co-founder of the 2010 Living Walls Conference. She holds a B.A. in speech and drama from Trinity University.
Over the coming months, the Bad at Sports blog is featuring quick glimpses of the art world as it exists in smaller cities across the country and around the world. Each glimpse is byway of some of the said city’s local characters, which include but are not limited to artists, curators, creative writers, and critics. In this It’s an Atlanta Day, Part 1 article, Bad at Sports correspondent Meredith Kooi has invited curators Rachel Reese and Beth Malone to share their thoughts on the present, past, and future of Atlanta and its artistic endeavors. In this two-part essay, they tackle the problems of legacy, responsibility, and inconsistency.
As Rachel Reese (featured below) poignantly states: “I am currently looking ahead towards the past.” This seems to be a common sentiment shared amongst many ATLiens. Considering Atlanta’s particular history – it has burned to the ground twice – and its inconsistent flux of artist communities, it is apt that many artists, curators, writers, etc., etc. are engaged with Atlanta’s past. Recognizing what has come before is essential to mapping out a potential future, or even making sense of the present.
Reese and Malone asked themselves:
Is legacy a socially-shared responsibility of a community? Who carries the onus of education or transferring communal history? How does one (or do “we” in a communal sense) maintain institutional knowledge when these “caretakers” of histories are in continual flux or transition?
and what follows is their working towards a resolution.
Speakers of the Aymara language in Andean culture carry a view that is essentially opposite of how most cultures spatially conceptualize time: for the Aymaran, the past is in front of them and the future behind them. They call the future “qhipa pacha/timpu,” meaning back or behind time, and the past “nayra pacha/timpu,” meaning front time. Aymaran speakers gesture ahead of them when remembering things past, and backward when talking about the future. So what is known (the past) is what you can see in front of you, with your own eyes.
Questions of institutional memory drive a lot of my thought process recently. Atlanta is a small, close-knit, and motivated arts city, but apparently lacks a lot of “download” in terms of sharing communal histories – communal being the operative word. And this is not a conversation unique to Atlanta. So a question I keep returning to is, where is the gap or disconnect between individual and institutional “gatekeepers” held over from prior years and a new generation of young artists in our city? Are we unknowingly repeating the past? Or, are we even aware of whom these gatekeepers are to begin with? Are we setting ourselves up for repeat performances, cyclic behavior without any memory? (Note: in full self-consciousness, I’m aware my inquiries are not new, a theme that in itself is timeless and cyclical). So, then, who carries the onus of responsibility? Is this always individually-motivated, or when do we decide this becomes a socially-shared responsibility? Does it boil down to messaging and communicating with others – is this the result of a communication gap driven by rapid technology shifts?
I recently heard Matthew Higgs, director and chief curator at White Columns, speak about not only the breadth of experiences, projects, and arcs in his career, but of particular interest to both Higgs, and subsequently myself, was his personal passion to what he calls “time served” with regards to professional employment and dedication to an organization throughout one’s life. Sustaining long arcs in one’s career calls for time and patience, and this model is increasingly diminishing in contemporary society, not excluding contemporary visual arts. Institutional positions sometimes come with term and funding limits, curators work independently and career hop between institutions so as not to stagnate and capitalize on programmatic opportunities when they arise, and “time served” does not carry the same weight or relevance as it might have a few decades (or years) prior. In opposition to this thinking, Higgs commented that his initial proposal for directorship at White Columns called for a 10-year plan, now currently coming to fruition (and he hopes to implement the ensuing 10-year plan).
Important in Higgs’ argument is that making a commitment to an organization, a city even, and staying there, allows you to create a community around the ideas you want to explore and build it over time and space, growing and maintaining institutional memory often lost when leadership is in constant flux. It allows you to put forward new ideas and opinions while walking with certain histories. Atlanta is a fertile place with ripe histories and legacies to mine and maintain. But, it is important to contextualize these histories while not feeling burdened by them in the present. How can we, in a communal sense, build an academic Archive – both accessible to the public and organized upon best practices – while simultaneously re-contextualizing and re-performing those histories in a self-reflexive narrative running parallel to it? How can self-consciously marginal activities become self-historical?
The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center (ACAC) was founded in 1973 as Nexus, an artist cooperative formed by a group of Georgia State University photography students dissatisfied with exhibition opportunities available to them in Atlanta at the time. This fledgling co-op, individually motivated, grew exponentially comprising several spaces over four decades into an organization with various stakeholders, each with their own degree of “gatekeeping,” over the past 40-plus-year history. Does art “community” exist on a macro level, or do we create and maintain more intimate connections that are professionally- or personally-motivated? As a localized “art community” grows (in scope, range, approaches) does it inversely become more polarized or fragmented? In other words, do we lose our “communal” spirit when concerns for individual viability, logistical practicalities, and financial sustainability, create unconstructive competition thereby rupturing communication between organizations or individuals in a community (and “community” is not necessary a condition of the geographically-based local).
I began these inquiries this past spring at ACAC under the name Resource Room Roundtables – essentially a monthly Monday morning “power hour” with Atlanta arts leaders and professionals to discuss a range of topics from measuring impact and success, to the importance of role models and field research in one’s practice. Creating agile programming in an underutilized space carrying an outdated model (the Resource Room as “community billboard,” pre-handheld digital device ubiquity) serves to rethink the model altogether, to present a series of cumulative investigations that overtime will begin to reveal their logic and possible outcomes. It is my belief that platforms can be non-hierarchical and democratic in terms of emphasis (thinking, researching, producing, presenting, analyzing), thus a redistribution of resources whereby formats are intended to overlap and develop from that overlap, to complement and interact with each other.
In the spirit of self-reflexivity, searching and allowing inquiries to drive this thought process is proving most fruitful at this stage of my “time served” in Atlanta; the phrase “settling down” has never been more comforting, in that I am here for the long haul, but after two years my work has only just begun. I am currently looking ahead towards the past.
For four years, Dashboard Co-op has moved forward with slim knowledge of recent Atlanta art history. We move instinctively, with present-tense intention, making decisions very pointedly, yet with eyes to the future. From our beginnings we’ve sought regular guidance from community leaders with the understanding that they have vast experience due to the nature of their reputations and charisma and community gossip. But without a presence of mind to do the historical research (75% of the problem, honestly), or an obvious communal archive to access materials documenting these “experiences” – we just took everyone’s word for it.
My personal curatorial brain has been shifting lately sparked by a fleeting comment made by one of our most established and well-versed critics, Jerry Cullum:
COSMS is a transformation of a vacant office-tower space that, for us old-timers, brings back memories of such ambitious artist-organized events as the Thursday Night Artists’ exhibition on the 50th floor of Philip Johnson’s One Atlantic Center.
Upon reading this, I immediately felt a great sense of naiveté for having zero familiarity with his reference. Since 2010, I personally have had no problem forging ahead and, until now, had found my ignorance of the past to be blissfully refreshing and freeing. Jerry’s mention of recent ATL art history (as he often does in reviews, so wonderfully) jarred me out of that bliss. With that very brief, though potent, reference came a new sense of pressure to respond, a desire to learn, and a nagging (though loving) sense of responsibility to preserve.
Taking on the responsibility to archive and preserve is something a community can take or leave depending on present day circumstances. Seven years ago, when the economy was at its worst in decades, there may have been no presence of mind to allocate funds for archival projects. The city’s establishment was trying to keep its doors open with present-day programming, while the emerging scene was flourishing with energetic organizations and artists making quick, unregulated decisions on how best to respond to the freedom the economic downturn afforded us – vacant space, lax regulations, preoccupied purse-string holders.
Now, seven years later, with the recession passing out of view slowly, slowly, Dash has somehow maintained its footing without getting arrested, pissing people off, or bottoming out financially. To celebrate, we’re pausing to breathe, make space, and define our curatorial practice – a practice that will be informed by specificity of space, place, and history.
We’ll do the research; we’ll continue conversations with our community leaders, but dig deeper into the work they did in the 80s and 90s. We’re exploring dusty archives at Art Papers and ACAC and raising questions about where and how these archives are being presented and preserved at these and other established institutions. Namely, so we can access them with ease and use them as resource and support material in exhibitions.
I do personally believe we, as a presenting organization, have a responsibility to, on occasion, contextualize exhibitions with our historical past. These references directly respond to our own growth and sustainability; it improves the quality of our work and builds strength and appreciation within the walls of this expansive, multi-generational community. It may even act as a way to prevent mistakes of the past – though I don’t subscribe to the belief that there were – but it will absolutely make “the Past” a breathing being that informs present and future work, rather than an unknown grumble with its arms crossed in the back of a gallery.
This interest/commitment to archiving will also inform Dash’s current archival practices, meaning we will strive to maintain our own historical record. We need to create a space that is mindful of future artists, curators, and critics who find themselves in a similar position as ourselves. But more selfishly (paranoid?), this is a way to control how we are perceived in the future, just as we attempt to control present-day perceptions. I hope to look to larger institutions to define “best practices” in record-keeping, while, in return as a young organization, make comment on functionality and access.
- Beth Malone
Rachel Reese is an independent curator and arts writer living in Atlanta. She is currently the Communications Manager at Atlanta Contemporary Art Center. She has worked for many years in commercial galleries in the Northeast? Assistant Director of Fleisher/Ollman Gallery in Philadelphia; Financial Director of Deitch Projects, among other positions held at Andrea Rosen, Petzel Gallery, and Andrew Kreps in New York. In 2010, Reese founded Possible Press, a free periodical of curated artists’ writings, and in 2009, began Possible Projects, an exhibition/curatorial space, with her husband Trevor Reese.
Reese regularly contributes to Bomb Magazine, and her writing also appears in Temporary Art Review, TWELV Magazine, and ART PAPERS. Reese was the former editor of BURNAWAY Magazine, where she edited the magazine’s inaugural print publication, INTERIOR (2013). She is an adjunct at Georgia State University, and was previously at PAFA in Philadelphia. She holds an MFA from City College New York, CUNY.
Beth Malone is an independent curator and the founding executive director of Dashboard Co-op, an award-winning curatorial venture that activates raw space with immersive art. Dash has been nationally praised for its neighborhood revitalization efforts and curatorial vision by WABE, Business Insider, HGTV, Hyperallergic, and the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, among others. In addition to her work with Dash, in 2011, Beth started the Teen Program at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta where she connected tens of thousands of teenagers with the Museum’s collections and exhibitions. Under her direction, the program tripled in size, and now spreads across the Woodruff Arts Center to the Atlanta Symphony and Alliance Theatre. Beth holds a Masters of Letters from the University of Glasgow and participates on numerous review committees in Atlanta. Her animated films have screened in New York and Atlanta, her writing has appeared in numerous publications, and her neon sculpture is, meh.
Most of the time we want meaning to be immediately clear to us. Things should not be ambivalent. The glass should be see-through. The two-way mirror makes us uneasy; those on the other side can see us, but we can’t see them – when we look into the glass, we are only given our own image back to us. If we are sighted, when darkness covers the world, we become anxious.
In a sense, objects remain opaque to us even though we can perceive them, know what they are composed of, and how they are produced. The object will always exceed our perception; we can only experience one side at a time. We surround ourselves with things. We feel that they are part of us. We attribute aspects of ourselves and particular sentimental histories to them. Still, they withhold something from us. When the hammer breaks, its usefulness dissolves and the tool becomes an impenetrable object taking up space in our world.
Places can be evasive to us as well. We land in an unfamiliar territory and the world has indeed become different. Even when we inhabit a place, get to know its streets, idiosyncratic landmarks, and affects, at some point, it shows us something of itself that we hadn’t yet noticed. Parts of it remain hidden from us.
The oscillation between the veiled and the disclosed resonates in a particular way within the context of the South. Here in Atlanta, something about the city is so open and accessible but, at the same time, closed off and enigmatic. Same goes for a certain kind of beauty that I’ve experienced amongst many works here. Vibrant colors entice. Beauty can be deceptive. Southern hospitality can be misleading.
Multiple works either currently or recently on view in Atlanta engage in the interplay of opacity and transparency. These works open themselves to the viewer while simultaneously refusing her gaze.
Most of the works in Morgan Alexander‘s solo show remembering, forgetting, and remembering again at Swan Coach House hide themselves behind a translucent veil; panes of etched glass create a barrier between the viewer and the materials underneath. For the works in the series no title – are these the voices of our departed, or is it just the gramophone?, the underlying material is reclaimed wood from out-of-commission beehives. At first I thought the title strange – what did the gramophone have to do with anything? However, at some point, I began to hear a buzzing in my head; maybe the bees had returned from their disappearance.
Alexander mentioned that for honey bees, empty space provokes anxiety. If there are unwanted gaps, the worker bees will fill them with bee glue, or propolis. Using this material, the hive seals itself off from the outside. The traces of propolis found in the works no title – are these the voices of our departed, or is it just the gramophone? signal space denied. Similarly, the sculptural works in the show, where have they gone? where are they going?, are closed off from their environment. Using a Japanese method of wood charring in order to preserve the wood from insects and fire, Alexander’s cypress beehives attempt to stand apart from what lies outside them; these hives want to rest in impermeability. However, no bees live here. Colonies have been vanishing. In a gesture towards insular preservation, these sculptures stand empty.
Alexander’s work that is moving in a new direction, away from the focus on the beehive, opens up space while withholding it. The works in the series no title – tokonoma are influenced by tokonoma, which means room and describes a particular practice in Japanese interior design. In this room, the homeowner displays aesthetic objects, but the tokonoma is not meant to be inhabited by people. no title – tokonoma (constructed drawing in three parts) seems to be these rooms in miniature. no title – tokonoma (constructed drawing in two parts) confronts the viewer with two kinds of voids. One is the darkness that swallows you. The other is almost celestial. This work is reminiscent of a painterly tradition which could include Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings or Robert Ryman’s white paintings, but witnessing these may be more akin to the paintings that live in the Rothko Chapel. Each of these parts invites the viewer into their depths while also pushing her out.
Micah and Whitney Stansell’s show Scarlet Air at Whitespace seduces the viewer into its multi-channel video and sound installation. Spliced between open-ended narrative scenes, displays of various objects resting on a bare mattress fade into vibrant pink, orange, red, purple, and turquoise hues. Rotary phones, VHS tapes from the 90s, a cassette walkman, an ashtray with a still smoking cigarette, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden. We are familiar with these objects, though they appear out of place and are taken from our view. The color tones obscure these objects and they recede into a horizon of pure digital color. The void of the blue projector screen takes over.
Some of these objects pictured have become or are on their way to becoming obsolete. Channeling the 1990s, the Stansells present us with the heyday of late capitalism and disposability. The walkman replaced by the iPod, the rotary phone replaced by the cell phone and/or computer with internet access a la Skype/video chats.
Grounding these obscured and obsolete objects are picturesque and pastoral places. Many viewers attempt to identify the places that appear in the Stansells’ works, and I wonder why this is. What is it about these places that drives Atlantan viewers to locate them? The Stansells say that many people say that the places feel like where the grew up. These locations are familiar to people.
However, a few moments of disorientation disturb the narrative. The woman takes a walk with a man in the woods. On one of the soundtracks accompanying the film, their conversation is disrupted by tones. We get a glimpse into their dialogue, but we are denied full access. At another moment, a sharp jump from reality occurs. The protagonist lays back on a wrapped mattress, seemingly irritated by her job at a Value Village. When she hits the mattress, we cut to an aerial view; the mattress rests in a section of broken pavement in a parking lot. The woman looks up.
These are the compelling moments; perhaps what the voiceover soundtrack intends when she states “This is a falling action.” The narrative we’ve constructed in the particular place while watching the film breaks for a moment and we have to regather. The objects recede into the horizon and we are left with nothing to hold onto.
Abelardo Morell‘s newly commissioned work for the High Museum‘s photography series “Picturing the South” simultaneously summons into and rejects the viewer from the image and the imaged landscape. Using mirrors and other framing devices Morell creates a surreal environment. These techniques trick the viewer into thinking she is seeing the thing itself, though, she discovers, she is indeed not. Morell’s focus on the dense landscape of trees, different from many of the expansive shots the Stansells include in their film, disallows the viewer from entering the scene. As opposed to the woods walk in Scarlet Air, the viewer can’t picture herself in this environment. She is denied access. The trees stand apart from her. Layers of trees infiltrate each other – an interplay of inside and outside within the frame.
For each of these projects, the South appears as the aesthetic impetus. The Stansells claim that they couldn’t ignore the southern landscape and narrative; the countryside and the ways in which stories are told have forced the artists to consider them in their film and installation projects. For Alexander, both the cultivation and destruction of the land and traditions of the South beckon for a certain kind of aesthetic. He describes his interest in yugen, an element discussed in Japanese aesthetics meaning obscurity, dimness, mysteriousness. Perhaps in a more superficial connection, Morell was given the task of “picturing the South.” That said, the photographs making up that series vacillate between inside/outside and various layers in peculiarly different ways from the ones represented in the rest of his retrospective, suggesting that there is something about this place that calls for a different method of image-making.
I am still trying to decide what the aesthetically beautiful does for me. I am taken in by it though I usually prefer the raw and transgressive. Something that both repels and compels you. However, there is something to be said about the delicate and enchanting; it has the ability to keep more viewers within its throes. But, what does it mean to be seduced by a work? Instead of shaken by it? Which is more potent? Does it depend on what needs to be said?
For Heidegger, the work of art is that which sets up a world and sets forth earth; “the work lets the earth be an earth” (Heidegger, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” 1936, 172). He says that the temple that sits atop a hill shows us, for the first time, the stoniness of stone. In describing a Van Gogh, he claims that we must look at paint’s color thus: “[c]olor shines and wants only to shine. When we analyze it in rational terms by measuring its wavelengths, it is gone. It shows itself only when it remains undisclosed and unexplained” (Heidegger 1936,172). The work of art is tied to the world and the earth from which is springs forth.
To continue my article last month that dealt with recent sculptural works made/shown in Atlanta that exemplify this setting to work the materials found in our urban environment, I’d like to address two recent image/photography-based projects by Atlanta-based artist Stephanie Dowda. Namely, her projects Topophilia and We Are All We’ve Got. These works, in their dealings with landscape and the cosmos, we find an intricate layering of space that spans prehistoric to astronomical time.
The Uncanniness of Topophilia
Dowda’s Topophilia, which gets its name from philosopher-geographer Yi-Fu Tuan‘s 1974 book Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values, consists of 14 photographic works – all 20″ x 24″ silver gelatin prints. Made using an idiosyncratic medium-format camera, these soft, and often romantic, photographs are the material manifestations of energy emanations. Dowda states that the camera she uses “becomes a vessel [that] capture[s] the sensation” from and of the places she visits. Her process involves letting the camera decide how the light waves will write themselves onto the film. Dowda claims to be taking a step back during the process of making; she lets the landscape itself create and determine the exposure. For an artist intent on photography-based practice, the camera taking over can create an uncanny sort of situation.
Uncanny, unheimlich in the German as an adjective means eerie or frightening, though taken as Unheimlich, a noun, the term becomes an ontological condition, which for Heidegger means a not-being-at-home; in other words, a being-not-familiar-with (Being and Time, 1927, 182). In our everyday dealings, we become “tranquilized” by our familiarity with our habitual world. However, as Heidegger notes, the uncanny emerges when “everyday familiarity collapses.”
Two of the photographs in Topophilia, Sense of Revenant and Sense of Breaking Apart, come from the Walter de Maria Lightning Field. Both of these photographs capture spectral energies – both human and nonhuman. Standing in front of Sense of Breaking Apart feels like splitting. The photograph’s horizon disintegrates into the haze and so does my gaze. Without knowing where this photograph was taken, I felt the energetic pulsations of a place filled with electrical activity. Sense of Revenant combines a sense of the ghostly and the dreamy. Who is visiting this camera, filtering through its shutter? For Freud, the revenant figures as the dream visitor, a “reincarnation” of someone from the dreamer’s life and past. (Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams 1899, 523). But the revenant is also a spectre (i.e., Roland Barthes‘ Spectrum).
Witnessing the ghost throws us into an unfamiliar yet familiar situation. We know this person, but this person should not be here now. The visitation is a strange rupture in our space-time experience. In his book The Memory of Place: A Phenomenology of the Uncanny, Dylan Trigg, writes that
“The relation between aesthetic experience and ontological disruption is not incidental. As an aesthetic gesture in itself, the freezing of the life-world means that, what is taken-for-granted is thus shown in its transcendental givenness. This, indeed, constitutes a necessary estrangement from the world, insofar as it is precisely the everyday world in its familiar assurance that is most susceptible to sudden reversal” (2012, 26).
For Dowda’s photographs, there is this freezing, but also simultaneously a putting into motion. The energetic pulsations of past lightning and the visitor pass through the shutter and make their mark on the silver of the film. These emanations reach out to the camera. However, Dowda, as photographer, reciprocates this reaching. Trigg describes how “our bodies reach out into the world, so a mimetic interplay arises, in which our sense of self becomes fundamentally entwined with the fabric of the world” (2012, 9). For Dowda’s photographs, we can see the camera as an extension of her world and thus it extends out into the world, becomes a sort of being itself.
Prehistorical Time and Astronomical Time
Lucy Lippard’s 1983 book Overlay: Contemporary Art and the Art of Prehistory starts with her tripping over a stone – a stone she realized “had been placed there almost 4,000 years ago” (2). For Lippard, her interests do not lie in the use of “prehistoric images in contemporary art”; rather, she is interested in the relationship between the prehistoric and the contemporary. To do this, Lippard uses the figure of the “overlay,” which for her has multiple meanings:
“It is temporal – human time on geologic time; contemporary notions of novelty and obsolescence on prehistoric notions of natural growth and cycles. The imposition of human habitation on the landscape is an overlay … so are the rhythms of the body transferred to the earth, those of the sky to the land or water … Artists working today from models of the distant past are consciously or unconsciously overlaying their knowledge of modern science and history on primal forms that remain mysterious to us despite this knowledge” (Lippard 1983, 3-4).
The stone in the landscape carries with it a richness through its slow accumulation of history. Over time, geologic material adds to material, rock formations develop then deteriorate and change. These stones always rest underfoot. The trip, a certain kind of temporal and spatial disruption, causes us to pay attention, bring us back to the stoniness of the stone. Our bodies, composed of the same material, are inherently part of this earth. Those who were there before us are also part of this landscape. When we step on this ground, we connect to the organic material underfoot.
In another gesture towards spatial orientation, Dowda’s installation We Are All We’ve Got, which was installed at Emory’s Michael C. Carlos Museum for its event Veneralia, memorialized the extinct star constellations Antinous, Quardrans Muralis, and Argo Navis. Using slides culled from Emory’s Physics Department that are no longer used, Dowda projected these constellations creating a layered human orientation. These projections constitute an “overlay” of our place in this universe.
Where we are at any particular point in time changes our view of the celestial bodies. Our vision is always contingent upon our position in space and time. Stars are born die. We are created from their dust. These cosmic beings provided our cartographic orientation as well as our bodily one. Socrates argues that the human head rests at the apex of the body so that it is closer to the heavens. From Plato’s Timaeus:
“Now we ought to think of the most sovereign part of our soul as god’s gift to us, given to be our guiding spirit. This, of course, is the type of soul that, as we maintain, resides in the top part of our bodies. It raises us up away from the earth and toward what is akin to us in heaven, as though we are plants grown not from the earth but from heaven” (90a).
Considering Our Place
It may seem a strange move to discuss works that were not “made in” Atlanta in order to follow up a discussion of Atlanta as place. However, these works serve to broaden the horizon of our place in time and space. For phenomenology, the horizon is what allows us to perceive. According to philosopher Edmund Husserl, we perceive in terms of the horizon and background:
“What is now perceived and what is more or less clearly co-present and determinate (or at least somewhat determinate), are penetrated and surrounded by an obscurely intended to horizon of indeterminate actuality. I can send rays of the illuminative regard of attention into this horizon with varying results. Determining presentiations, obscure at first and then becoming alive, haul something out for me; a chain of such quasi-memories is linked together; the sphere of determinateness becomes wider and wider, perhaps so wide that connection is made with the field of actual perception as my central surroundings” (Husserl, Ideas I, 1913, 49).
In other words, the indeterminate haziness of the horizon gives determinacy to the object perceived; the object emerges from this horizon. For Dowda’s photographs and projections, the horizons of time and space constitute the images that we are presented with. These images, of this world but completely otherworldy, throw us into uncanniness. Instead of being destroyed by this mood as anxiety, however, it provokes us to consider where we stand. Where we are. When we are. As Dylan Trigg states,
“[t]he uncanny is strange rather than shocking, weird rather than annihilating. Often, we fail to recognize the power of the uncanny, its workings registered only belatedly and in parched fragments. At that time, we turn to ourselves in order to ask the following question: What just happened to me? A feeling of disempowerment occurs. The unity of self-identity becomes vulnerable. No longer do we feel at ease within ourselves. The uncanny leaves us in a state of disquiet, unnerved precisely because we lack the conceptual scheme to put the uncanny in its rightful ‘place.'” (2012, 28)
It would be too easy to deal with this uneasiness by passing it over, by claiming that there is no place that needs dealing with. I realize that the noplace of Noplaceness also gestures towards the duplicitous definition of utopia: utopia as good place and no place. However, since utopia holds within it a non-existence, it in fact is a nowhere, it is no place at all, it is the here, this place where we stand, that we must consider.