Entering whitespace gallery from the hazy, sweltering Atlanta noon, escaping the cascades of kudzu and endless advertisements of the coming millennials, I walked through a wall of cold air into the artist talks for Soft Eyes, a group exhibition curated by Pete Schulte. I was shocked into re-seeing by the spareness and order of the exhibition. The show, a translation of an online exhibition, realizes an austerity and distancing of the internet. The works resist easy entry, forefronting carefully crafted surfaces. Each artist works with a unique language that feels distantly related to others spoken around the gallery.
There are limitations to the digital world and distinct advantages to pulling these physical works together. Cracks and fissures form in the reserved surfaces, drawing in the viewer. The resonances arising from the juxtaposition of Julia Fish’s pieces slow the crossing of the threshold they span. The vibrancy of Andy Moon Wilson’s colors and dense patterns call from across the room. The friction Katy Fischer describes between the arrangement of her small paintings and objects and their highly-studied and finely crafted surfaces compels close viewing.
Soft Eyes rewards slowing down at these entrance points to extend our vision beyond the individual artworks. Each of the works in the show ultimately unveils a depth of care and time that results in their quiet, reserved surfaces. The time spent laboring over the work is evident in Leah Raintree’s finely detailed, topographic map-like drawings. Time invested generating an artistic practice blossoms in Amy Pleasant’s reinvestigations into moments of creation and life buried within her studio. Each of the artists has honed a language uniquely their own, singular in its application yet resonant with the other languages that fill the gallery. All of the works are deeply considered, and, as with the best translations, Schulte has allowed each work the space and time to breathe lives from the others that would otherwise remain unspoken.
In closing the artist talk, Hamlet Dobbins talked of art being a river of time — teacher to student, artwork to artwork — each arising from and forming the river. This analogy, reflected in the multi-generational, multi-relational show, is comforting, as summer heat continues with no end in sight. I need reminders of time’s continuing presence and slow passage — tardier sunrises, grey hairs that suddenly appear, the rise and fall of a dog’s breath as we sleep and wake to slow accretions of a life built together.
I continue to live with Soft Eyes, exploring the depths and truths contained within its layers, and I have begun to modify the analogy to think of art as an oceanic current, flowing through the dynamic ecosystems of the world, pushing and pulling bits of plastic and phytoplankton into and out of its flow, one part of a water cycle so vast and far reaching into our past and future we no longer know if we are clouds or raindrops or ocean water shaping the course of the world around us.
Soft Eyes is on view at whitespace until September 12.
The community & arts organization in Atlanta LiFT held its first Art Salon in November 2014 and has been holding them once a month since. The most recent, #CreATL, featured glass artist Marselle Harrison-Miles, R&B singer ASH who just dropped her first EP, The Perfect EP, DJ D LaShae, and the entrepreneurial initiative Human Capital Theory that focuses on community-building through sustainable economic development which encourages professionals to donate their expertise and services to fledgling businesses.
Each Salon, though there have been only five, draws a sizable crowd. (Let me tell you, it can get CROWDED!) I have been to a few of these events and know two of the founding members: Clint Fluker, who is also in my doctoral program at Emory University – The Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts – and Nasim Mahboubi Fluker. The third founder is Miriam Denard. Since I think what they’re doing is exciting and also historically important in terms of its relationship to and with Atlanta’s vibrant black community, I decided to get a conversation going with them. Here are the results of that discussion:
Meredith Kooi: What prompted you all to start LiFT?
LiFT Art Salon [Miriam Denard]: Plainly, I think Nasim and Clint, and at the same time myself, were all in need of something to DO. Something that wasn’t going to a bar or going to a club or a concert. Something that felt cool and fun but also mature and important and worth our time. So, when you sit there and think to yourself, “if there was something I could go to, some event that had other people that are like me, good music, and actually was about something that I’m into or that I care about, I would be there in a second.” So, when we all thought about the things that each of us are passionate about, LiFT came about. Music, Art, and Community projects each play a significant role in each of our lives so everything came together organically like that. It was like a marriage of all of our networks and passions. We always joke about how this is really about giving people something cool to do on a Sunday on Edgewood that doesn’t involve drinking and partying. There’s more to Edgewood than that.
MK: What are its main goals? What are you hoping to achieve?
LiFT [Miriam Denard]: I think one of our main goals with LiFT is to showcase local talent. Atlanta is known for a lot of things right now through the media and the music industry. But we feel…we KNOW that Atlanta has so much more to offer artistically than what is at the forefront right now. This city is full of incredible DJs and musicians, artists and poets, and really special and unique community projects and developments. So, if anything, we hope that holding these salons every month will raise awareness about the Atlanta that we all know and love and will give people a venue to showcase their talents and their positive contributions to society.
MK: What is the community you are trying to reach?
LiFT [Miriam Denard]: Our main demographic is young professionals. That’s who we are. We are all in our late 20s early 30s (actually I’m the only one in my 30s) and we want to give our friends and colleagues something interesting and different and fun to do. We also have a lot of friends or people in our network that are insanely talented, so we are also trying to reach out to them and give them a stage to share their talents. We believe that our generation, these educated, talented, engaged young adults who are seeing what’s going on in the world and wanting to do something about it, or are super passionate and talented at something and want to make a career out of it, need a catalyst. To us, the catalyst is getting all of this energy into one room and then just watching what happens. Hopefully the outcome will be something very important.
MK: What are the issues LiFT is trying/hoping to tackle? Your January salon #ferguson2ATL addressed the important issues concerning race and police brutality. In February it was #ATLsoulfoodie which addressed food, food access, and other related topics. Can you talk a bit about the politics of LiFT?
LiFT [Clint Fluker]: As an organization, we are concerned with helping to shape an Atlanta that is not only welcoming to artists but also encourages an exchange of ideas between artists and other professionals in different fields. It is important to remember that art fosters creativity and enables individuals from all walks of life to recognize the connections between us all that often lay hidden amidst society’s political structures. This is why we use a salon model. It enables us to provide a platform where people can relax in a creative space, participate in conversation about an intriguing subject matter, and hopefully meet somebody new in the process. The objective here is to foster a community of engagement where people gather to understand issues like police brutality and food access from an intellectual AND artistic point of view. So, in that sense, LiFT is a nonpolitical entity in that we shy away from making any explicitly political statements. Rather, our aim is to inform and inspire the people who attend LiFT events to continue conversations started at our salon and create their own mechanisms for change throughout the great city of Atlanta.
MK: Can you talk a bit more about the category of “young professionals”? Does this include the artists that show their work? Or does this describe the audience?
LiFT [Clint Fluker]: The category of young professional is a necessarily broad one for LiFT. We consider anyone with a youthful spirit and a desire to create something new in the city a young professional. Often, when we think of “young professionals,” we picture a 25 year old in a suit eagerly putting together PowerPoint presentations and attending mixers for networking purposes (we still do this ourselves…daily). These people are indeed young and professional, but it’s a very limiting view of the category. Activists, artists, students, and entrepreneurs are also part of this category, and we want to make sure that we attract as many different kinds of “young professional” people that we can. In a way, our salon format is designed specifically to break out of the “mixer” routine and attract young people to have conversations with each other for purposes other than professional networking.
Though the majority of people who attend our events are like us, between the ages of 20 to 40, we are just as interested in providing space for a graduating senior moving into the job market as we are for a retiree who has recently found the passion for painting. Our aim is to engage and encourage individuals who are taking steps in new and varied directions. Indeed our audience skews young, but our goal is to provide a family-friendly environment and we have found that families often bring their children to our events. Some of the most fruitful conversations at LiFT have been initiated by children still in grade school. Many of the most eye-opening questions during our salon have been posed by our more mature attendees.
MK: The first LiFT salons were held at the Atlanta Baha’i Center on Edgewood, right in the middle of a wild nightlife scene. What prompted the decision to hold them there? What is the relationship between the Center and the surrounding area?
LiFT [Nasim Mahboubi Fluker]: The Atlanta Baha’i Center is actually one of the older buildings in the Edgewood Corridor. It was built in the 1940’s by an African American Baha’i Architect and his son because during that time in Atlanta’s history, it was very dangerous for the interracial Baha’i community to meet in homes. As a result of numerous threats from white supremacist groups, the Center was built in the bustling African American business district. It was this rich history of creating inclusive spaces for progressive thought and building diverse communities that attracted us to the Baha’i Center.
On a more personal note, I am a member of the Baha’i Community, and my parents actually met in the Center in 1978. I personally think that faith-based communities have a role to play in contributing to positive community growth.
That said, as an organization, LiFT is a mobile entity. Our March LiFT, #CreATL was held at the Decatur ArtHouse, a great organization with an open floor plan that really allowed us to spread our wings in a new section of the city. We are grateful that they too have opened up their space to us as we try to bring the LiFT experience to new areas. We are very interested in partnering with different organizations around the city to get the word out about how important it is for young professionals, artists, and activists to work together on the issues facing our city.
MK: LiFT has only had a handful of salons so far, but you’ve been able to draw 150+ people to each event. Why do you think this is? What, if anything, have you homed in on that wasn’t already going on in Atlanta?
LiFT: I think Atlantans (especially 20-30-somethings) are thirsty for the type of space we have been able to create: a space that is inviting, creative, and at times challenging. We have found that by finding connectivity between the arts and social issues, we have been able to appeal to a wider audience than if we were just focusing on one or the other. We really wanted to create opportunities for young professionals and artists to dialogue because we found that these two communities were way too segregated. We just felt like in order to begin tackling some of the most pressing social issues in the city, we really needed to foster the nexus between creative energy and institutional knowledge. We are still trying to nurture more dialogue at our events – and our real objectives for LiFT are to inspire more people to take action and exercise agency in creating the Atlanta they want to live in. This sentiment [was] the impetus for our March Salon #CreATL.
MK: What plans do you have coming up? What else is on the horizon for you all? Also, what’s behind the decision to title each salon with the #?
LiFT [Nasim Mahboubi Fluker]: We currently have a few exciting partnerships in the works. We will be partnering with the Hammonds House Museum for a quarterly series starting this summer called #GetLiFTed. We are thrilled to be able to collaborate with such an important cultural institution in Atlanta. This partnership will also allow for our artists to have an opportunity to display their work as part of our #GetLiFTed campaign for longer periods of time. Currently, as a pop-up, the art goes up and comes down in an evening. Now, [with the partnership with Hammonds House], artists may be able to show their work for as long as a month in an actual exhibition space. We are experimenting with our event format so look out for brunches, garden parties, and even more intimate salon-style dialogue sessions popping up around the city. For those interested in donating to this campaign, they should visit our Power2Give site!
The hashtags are just fun – they help us stay clear about the monthly theme and help folks tag us on social media.
MK: I’m also wondering if you would add some sort of statement about LiFT’s engagement with race and particularly where you see it within the conversation surrounding/about African-American art and Black art or Black aesthetics. Clint, I remember you mentioning that you didn’t want LiFT to be recognized as being only a Black organization. What are your thoughts on LiFT’s position within the ecology of art and race in Atlanta?
LiFT: We explicitly, though not exclusively, highlight young black artists, activists, and entrepreneurs. A large part of the contingent that comes to our events might identify as black (we don’t know all of them personally), and we are happy for it. We market to them on purpose. We feel that this is a community that wants and needs to be engaged, especially considering Atlanta has a sizable black population and an incredibly rich history as it relates to civil and human rights issues, the development of black-owned businesses, and the forging of the country’s leading HBCUs [Historic Black Colleges and Universities]. However, we are not looking to carve out a place in the larger abstract notion of “blackness” or “black aesthetics.” There are people and organizations dedicated to that cause, but that is not our mission. We wish to engage people in concerns that go beyond just race, but also extend to varying socio-economic backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender perspectives, and spiritual practices.
Which leads me to another point, we have attendees and have featured individuals from different backgrounds. Our planning team includes members from different backgrounds. Everyone is welcome to attend LiFT events and participate to the degree they wish to be involved. Thats what LiFT is really all about, its a welcoming place where people can gather and exchange ideas. When it comes down to it, we are really just giving the people what they want, and what we want. Its a ball! But, I don’t have to tell you that, Meredith, you have been to LiFT. Keep spreadin’ the word!
February: #ATLSoulFoodie with visual artists Gerald Lovell and Jurell Cayetano, DJ Jeremy Avalon (Werc Crew), food artists Jamila Crawford (Earth Candy) and Will Edmond (Werc Crew), and special guest Atlanta Mobile Market.
If someone slips on a banana peel in a forest and no one sees it, does anyone laugh?
The current exhibition at Atlanta Contemporary Art Center walks us dangerously close to the banana peel. We are the sucker about to unwittingly step onto the banana peel, and the audience waits with bated breath for us to make that final descent into unavoidable disaster.
Pratfall Tramps is a sprawling group show, filling the galleries and spilling over into the accompanying Gilda Radner Research & Translation Center. Entering the galleries, the curtain is lifted, setting the stage and revealing the impetus that gathers the seemingly disparate works together.
Jamie Isenstein’s Inside Outside Backstage Vase welcomes visitors to the space. From a distance the vase fills with vibrant, fresh flowers, but something is off. Some of the flowers wilt, revealing the perfect false blossoms and crumbling real flowers. A comically large, teetering stack of pancakes obscures Sara Greenberger Rafferty’s Performance Document: Self Portrait With Pancakes.
Isenstein’s Sand Lamp is funny as theatre of the absurd is funny. The joy and lighthearted moments of our lives, sheathed in the mundane, ready-made lamp shade burst from the sand that seems to entrap us, yet we cannot realize our electric cord still snakes to find sustenance.
Mary Reid Kelley’s Sadie The Saddest Sadist builds from the same tradition. The audio fills the space, looping just often enough to unobtrusively juxtapose its songs, chants, snippets of speech with other works. The mounting layers resist translation, but they create a new way of viewing the works, a shifting, performative veneer over the entire gallery.
As the best comedy does, the works reveal larger issues at work in the world. Greenberger Rafferty’s Testing I (Whisk), Testing II (Baster), Testing III (Spoon), Testing IV (Shotgun Whisk), and Testing V (Scoop) anchor the exhibition, upending the tools of performance and standup comedy. It elevates Martha Rossler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen to the stage, making explicit Rossler’s performativity and revealing a silence doubly loud for the lack of amplification and absent performers.
Tammy Rae Carland’s series of acrylic ladders Pratfall Effect lead nowhere. The glass ceiling is not a fixed height. It is everywhere and nowhere.
If someone slips on a banana peel as daylight savings time begins, how long does it take for them to hit the ground?
Just as the individual works in Pratfall Tramps seem slightly off, the exhibition as a whole does not sit quite right within the gallery. This shifting in the exhibition, however, opens the curtain to an empty stage. We have already stepped on the banana peel, and the embarrassing, laughter-inducing fall is inevitable. We are continually reminded that the exhibition is funny or deals with comedy – the bananas, the artist bios, the accompanying quotes, the title of the show itself.
The curator, Rachel Reese, writes, “Pratfalls—bodily or object-based—are funny because they are a paradox. While suggesting lack of control, there is indeed complete and conscious control at play: in comedy, the performer can rewire failure as success.” Similarly, the quote from David Robbins’s On Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy included on the title wall reads, in part, “Consider the fool. The fool is supposed to fail, that’s part of the fool’s function—his ‘project.’ And because it is to some degree his project, the fool in fact cannot fail.”
These statements foreclose our ability to interpret the work critically. The show prevents viewers from experiencing the humor in the work by insisting it is funny, that it is successful when it appears to fail. Even if we see the artworks or the artists’ “projects” as failing, seemingly out of place, or unsuccessful, we are told that is precisely when they work the best.
The insistence on comedy and the comedic connections underpinning the artists’ work disrupts the exhibition, jars us out of the moments the works immerse us within, lands us on our backs as everyone laughs. We do not need to be reminded how funny it is. The assertions and repetitions undercut the fact that it is a strong show that coheres on its own.
If I tell you someone slips on a banana peel, is it still funny?
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.