Lauri Stallings’ latest public art projects, Movement Choirs (June 22-July 15) and Red Hill River (of brotherhood) (July 9-July 24) take her company, glo, to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights and five sites along the Chattahoochee River with complex and multi-layered histories.
Movement Choirs launches June 22 at the center. It will be the first time that dance has been performed in the museum. Every Wednesday and Friday through July 15, six dancers (Stalling prefers to call them “moving artists”) take a 90-minute journey from the front entrance, down the stone steps to the water sculpture, and into the museum from the lower entrance. They will work their way through the museum, ending up in the global human rights gallery. “glo is participatory art, and we are occupying a museum that engages its audiences with participatory art,” says Stallings. It’s a fertile combination.
Outside the center, glo will involve the public in “a big circular hug.” Stallings envisions people migrating around and over one another. “The group will be totally self-governed by people who might otherwise be strangers if they hadn’t joined the circle,” she says. “This is my idea of a warmer, more democratic welcome into the museum.”
Derreck Kayongo, the center’s chief executive officer, is delighted to have glo on board. “The center was created to be a convener of voices and expressions in the civil and human rights movement,” he says. “We welcome everyone who has something to say intelligently and passionately about social justice. glo is trying to do that.”
The Center’s founding CEO, Doug Shipman, approached Stallings about doing a project there more than three years ago but Stallings declined. “I didn’t have anything for them,” she says. “I ran away.”
After completing her project in New York City’s Central Park last year, however, she knew she had something. Shipman had left the center by then, but discussions continued with the new team and last fall Stallings got the go-ahead. She started hanging out at the center, getting a feel for it inside and out. At one point, she was moving on the grass outside and felt as if she was standing on marshland.
Stallings says the people at the center “looked at me like I was a little crazy.”
In her research, Stallings discovered that the source of Proctor Creek lies somewhere under that part of downtown. As one of her collaborators said: “Why do you think Spring Street is called Spring Street?”
Proctor Creek flows into the Chattahoochee. For months, glo has explored hidden and often neglected sites on the banks of the river within the city limits of Atlanta. They include the abandoned bungalow where Mr. Imagination, the African-American outsider artist Gregory Warmack, once lived.
“This river was home to all kinds of people,” says Stallings. “My Native American ancestors, the South’s distinctive African-American culture. I think if we spent more time making contact with the natural world in an experiential, creative way, we would alter the way we treat each other, our environment and ourselves.”
The divisions that society, and glo, wrestle with aren’t new. “They can be racial, generational, socio-economic, spiritual, geographical,” says Stallings. “In this project, we are working in places that may need reconciliation. We dig deep into ugliness to find grace.”
Her writings about the project refer to the history of the Civil War and the civil rights movement, but when we chatted one Sunday morning at Dr. Bombay’s Underwater Tea Party in Candler Park, Stallings talked more about the present than the past: how to acknowledge Atlanta’s history, yes, but also how to reclaim and revitalize these spaces for Atlanta today and in the future.
To this end, she is collaborating with Chattahoochee NOW, a nonprofit committed to transforming the river corridor and making it more people-friendly, and Groundwork Atlanta, which has similar if more expansive goals.
Stallings trained as a dancer, choreographed for Atlanta Ballet, and bases her company’s work in dance, but during our 90-minute chat she says almost nothing about movement. She doesn’t like the word “dance,” or the concept of dance as entertainment. She’s a conceptual artist who is enthralled by philosophies like naturalism and thinkers like the political theorist Hannah Arendt. Her social action works aren’t driven by a particular movement vocabulary, although her style is instantly recognizable, but by group dynamics that are public and participatory. And by place.
“It’s fascinating as an artist to work with place as narrative,” Stallings says. “I treat places just like humans — they have memories and dreams and needs, just like me.” Then she adds with a laugh, “But they typically have better posture than me.”
Stallings started Red Hill River by exploring the Chattahoochee north of the city, but decided that the lesser-known sites in the city itself had more interesting histories. “It’s about the train tracks versus the river — there has been a lack of democracy around those two infrastructures that impacted communities, neighborhoods, families.”
Exploring these sites hasn’t been easy. She and her team have ignored no-trespassing signs, risked arrest and crossed train tracks; they suffered tick bites, scratches and variable weather. But the stories she discovered thrill her. At Paul Avenue, which leads into a meadow near the Chattahoochee Trail Park, she came across an abandoned bungalow where Gregory Warmack lived from 2008 until he died in 2012. His work has been shown at the High Museum and is in the Smithsonian.
She found the site to be magical. “Clearly the Native Americans adored this land,” she says. “You can feel them, my ancestors, there. We found a glorious fishnet hanging off a tree, like a huge dream catcher.” This is where the public installations of Red Hill River (of brotherhood) will begin on July 9.
glo will visit Whittier Mill on Wales Avenue, the trolley sub-station at Marietta Boulevard and Bolton Road, the Forgotten Playground on Adams Drive and finally, on July 22 and 24, Standing Peachtree Park on Ridgewood Road. This 12-acre park has markers and evidence of being the oldest Native American village in Atlanta.
The Creek/Mvskoke nation ceded the land to white settlers during the systematic removal of Native Americans from Georgia and the Southeast. It sits next to a water treatment plant and was closed to the public for several years. Stallings isn’t sure why, but has heard it may have been related to terrorism fears around the 1996 Olympics. Here, a group of artists will sit around a table, enjoy some food, and “talk about issues of civic import.”
Most Atlantans know their city by driving, taking MARTA or, in Stallings’ case, riding a silver moped, but she says “there are some things you can only discover by being on your feet,” things like the forgotten banks of the Chattahoochee and the people who once lived there.
Following is the schedule of events. There’s free parking at all the river sites, and there’s no admission charge. For the Center for Civil and Human Rights, attendees will be charged for regular admission. Be sure to follow glo’s Facebook page for updates.
National Center for Civil and Human Rights
June 22-July 15, Wednesdays and Fridays, 12-1:30 p.m. 100 Ivan Allen Jr. Blvd. Atlanta 30313
Red Hill River (of brotherhood) sites
Paul Avenue/Hand Land
Saturday, July 9, 7-9 p.m.
2398 Paul Ave. N.W.
Whittier Mill trails
Friday, July 15, 7-9 p.m.
2975 Wales Ave. N.W.
Saturday, July 16, 1-2:30 p.m.
Marietta Blvd. N.W. and Bolton Road N.W.
at Whetstone Creek Trail
Saturday, July 16, 7-9 p.m.
2268 Adams Drive N.W.
Standing Peachtree Park
Friday, July 22, 6-8 p.m.
Sunday, July 24, 6-8 p.m.
2630 Ridgewood Road N.W.