Flux Night, the annual festival of multimedia art projects and unusual performances, will turn Atlanta’s Castleberry Hill district into one big block party from 8 p.m. to midnight this Saturday, October 6. For the happy throngs, it’s a one-evening event. Its mission, however, is long term. Flux Night is one of the vehicles that parent organization Flux Projects has developed to nurture Atlanta artists, and it seems to be working.
Exhibit A: Stefani Byrd and Wes Eastin. The duo, who will mount their interactive piece “Troll” on Saturday night, are Flux babies. They began their public-art careers at the first Le Flash (Flux Night’s predecessor) in 2008 and have grown their skills and ideas in succeeding years to become among the most promising Atlanta artists working in the field of temporary public art.
Byrd, then a photography major at Georgia State University, was struggling to find a place to show her senior project when Cathy Byrd (no relation), then director of GSU’s art gallery, told her about an evening art exhibit that she and former Atlanta artist Stuart Keeler were planning. The event, Byrd told the young artist, would be the perfect platform for her piece.
The conversation was an epiphany. “Before that, I had thought public art was large metal sculptures,” she says.
Byrd, 28, had found not just a place to exhibit but a context for her interest in creating experiences that raise consciousness about what she calls “different ways of living in the world.”
The first piece, “Silent Echoes,” was a two-channel video on life-size screens in which a deaf and a hearing person communicated with each other in sign language, leaving the audience to wonder at what they were saying.
“The audience became in effect the deaf person,” says Eastin, a filmmaker and sketch comedian, who offered to help her with the video and became her artistic and real-life partner. (To simplify their roles: she shapes the ideas, he makes them work.)
They continued exploring the complicated nature of communication and its social impact in the similarly table-turning format of “You Sound Funny (When You Smile),” one of the highlights of Le Flash 2009. In a striking visual construct, two actors appeared in giant video projections only as a pair of disembodied Asian faces, à la Tony Oursler.
The actors spent the evening making stereotypical racist comments about passers-by in their native Hmong language. Although the audience could not understand the words, they could tell from intonation, facial expressions and gestures that they were being mocked.
The artists paid for “You Sound Funny” almost entirely out of pocket (but for a $500 grant from Atlanta Celebrates Photography), and it almost ended their public art careers. “I maxed out my credit cards and thought I’d be taking wedding and baby photos for the rest of my life to pay back friends who had helped us out,” says Byrd. “It burned me out financially.”
A $500 grant from Idea Capital and a simpler plan made “DIVA,” their 2010 piece, possible. It featured an opera singer, presented as a floating head, in full aria mode. Goofy through it was, it continued the conceptual thread.
“Sign language is a language that doesn’t require sound, and music is sound that doesn’t require language. It’s a visceral communication,” says Byrd.
Money talks, too. A $6,000 grant from Flux Projects supported “I Go Humble,” which appeared downtown in March 2011. “That was my first great experience,” Byrd says. “Flux gave us the money we needed to pay for the equipment, the crew and to even pay ourselves.”
In “Humble,” four actors — two women and two gay men — appeared on video screens in a storefront window to harass men as they walked by and banter with those who spoke into the microphones set up in front. That live interaction and its unpredictability are central to these social experiments, as Byrd calls them. She and Eastin rehearse with actors and set some parameters, then let them go.
The audience response is unpredictable as well. Byrd had hoped that the catcalled men would feel discomfited and understand what it feels like to be on the receiving end of sexual harassment, but some of the passers-by actually liked the attention and tried to hook up with the catcallers.
The fact is that people respond to the work, whether in the way the artists imagined or not. Its potency is due in part to a grounding in real-life experience. A chance observation of two people in a car speaking in sign language via the rear-view mirror inspired “Silent Echoes.”
The impetus for “You Sound Funny” was more personal. “My sister-in-law is Chinese,” Byrd explains. “She is the only non-white, non-Southern Baptist in a small North Georgia town. I have watched her and her children trying to find their feet there. I’ve seen the effect of the language barrier.”
A moment in “Funny” — when the male actor leered and whistled at a woman — led to “Humble.” Byrd, who was watching, saw the woman’s crushed expression. “I felt horrible,” she recalls. “And I knew that he was acting outside his normal self, hiding behind his anonymity.”
“That [phenomenon] is so prevalent, we wanted to continue looking at that,” Eastin says.
They take up the subject in “Troll.” It’s not news that anonymity often unleashes the base side of human nature, but it has led to particularly egregious behavior online. Sites such as 4chan have attracted millions of (mostly male) users, or “trolls,” for whom cruelty is a form of amusement. “Trolls compete to see who can be the nastiest and most offensive,” says Byrd. “Stuff on this site will make you sick to your stomach.”
Finding a way to represent a virtual message board was one of the challenges. The solution: a digital highway sign with a wireless modem (whose rental has gobbled up a large share of their $7,000 Flux Projects grant), which will be located near the intersection of Walker and Nelson streets. Working from a nearby room, Eastin and two improvisational actors will observe passers-by via remote cameras set up along the street and quickly make up comments to send to the sign via laptop computer. They will also live-stream the evening on Byrd’s website.
As in the past, the tone will not be as sober as the subject. Says Eastin: “We wanted to shine a light on that world, but we didn’t want to be preachy.” Or cruel. No one should go home in tears, Byrd says, and there will be no fat jokes. It’s empathy she’s after, always.
(Disclosure: Louis Corrigan, president of Flux Projects, is chairman of ArtsATL’s board, and ArtsATL has received grants from his foundation, Possible Futures.)