“Let’s go through Georgia fast so we won’t have to look at it much,” is the pronouncement with which the young son of an Atlanta family gets into the car for a drive to Florida in Flannery O’Connor’s famous short story “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” O’Connor satirizes an attitude that’s more long-standing and prevalent than we might like to think. It’s also an attitude, it should be noted, that’s not always without justification: there are places in Georgia I’ve felt so unwelcome, I wanted something faster than a car to take me through them.
Still, the state — conservative, distinctively Southern, small town, rural — can often seem as if it exists in a world that’s totally separate from its diverse, urban, aspirational capital, and the level of Atlantans’ interest in exploring connections, in driving through slowly as it were, has often been low. When an Atlanta artist says he’s ready to take his work beyond the city, it’s usually fair to assume he’s not speaking of his excitement about finally reaching audiences in Valdosta and Dawsonville.
It’s one reason why the fall tour of Georgia by two of Atlanta’s most prominent grassroots arts organizations, both thoroughly urban and “of Atlanta” right down to their DNA — dance company gloATL and graffiti mural organization Living Walls — was especially intriguing, as was the recent announcement by the groups that their residencies in smaller towns around the state will continue into the spring and possibly beyond.
Primarily utilizing and inspired by seed grants to both organizations from the Rauschenberg Foundation announced at the end of 2012, the two organizations teamed up for a series of residencies around the state in which they hosted panels, town meetings, school visits, potluck dinners, demonstrations and workshops and then created their signature street murals and public dance performances.
The places visited included Dalton, Athens, Rabun County, LaGrange and Gainesville. The groups usually spent a long weekend in each city, beginning in late September and ending in late October. The length of the stay and level of activity varied slightly in each town, though each stop’s events usually centered on the creation of a Living Walls mural, often in a central or historically prominent location, and a performative “installation” by the dancers of gloATL, often likewise in a central, historically prominent or otherwise well-trafficked location.
The level of engagement and the nature of the responses also varied somewhat from town to town, with most of the responses reportedly enthusiastic, though there was occasional friction and suspicion of the outsiders from some residents of small towns in the mountains of northeast Georgia. The tour concluded Friday and Saturday in the organizations’ home city of Atlanta, where the artists repeated similar activities, centering on photographic murals and a performative installation at the historic Rhodes Theatre.
The Rhodes, which opened in 1938, was the anchor establishment of Rhodes Center, Atlanta’s first shopping center just off of Peachtree Street near Rhodes Hall. It was a beloved Atlanta landmark single-screen cinema, the flagship of the Storey chain, before closing in 1985. I went to see movies there in its waning days when I was a kid but strangely enough, like a lot of people, I had all but forgotten it was there. Beyond creating murals and performances, it seems to me that what Living Walls and gloATL do well is to find and identify resources. Many of the prominent walls and gob-smackingly gorgeous and evocative performance places — a dock on Lake Lanier in Gainesville, a million square foot warehouse in Rabun County — had never been used for murals or performance before.
For the performative installation in Atlanta, the Rhodes Center’s front space was filled with red balloons, and the vast theater itself — the walls still bearing a few remnants of another era’s ornamentation, the floor nothing but dirt — was used for dance performance. One wall of the theater (interestingly enough, the wall that was formerly the entrance, not the screen side of the cinema) showed large-scale projections of beautiful slow motion video shot by photographer Dustin Chambers of the Traveling Show’s murals and performances.
A movie theater is designed to shut out the immediate outside world as much as possible, People usually went in to Rhodes to see images of almost anything but Atlanta and Georgia — Arabia, London, the Orient Express, Fellini’s Rome and 19th century Paris — so it was a fascinating reversal, to revive the theater by showing images of Georgia itself on the walls.
Curiously, the final performance in Atlanta, as well as the talks that accompanied it, did not have a conclusive feel. The questions seem to be ongoing: What resources might there be around the state for Atlanta artists? Is it possible for Atlanta artists to share their resources with people around the state? Incredibly, I don’t think these questions have ever really been approached with this level of engagement, curiosity or intensity.
The potential there seems so vast, such an unknown, it’s pretty electrifying, though the potential for disappointment or even disaster isn’t entirely absent either. As Milledgeville’s O’Connor might have pointed out, the family in “Good Man” did not actually end up driving through Georgia quickly, and things didn’t end well for them. It’s the danger in any uncertain, unpredictable,or new social encounter — and art especially is inherently risky.
Still, it’s a fascinating, wildcard next move by both organizations that I don’t think any observer might have predicted beforehand. The performance at Rhodes ended with the audience led into the center of the space one-by-one by the dancers and then invited to sit on some nice fresh green grass that had been brought in for the occasion: the sound system played the classic Sam Cooke song “A Change is Gonna Come.” No one asked and the artists didn’t say, but I suspect they meant “change” in the broadest, most comprehensive, most outrageously ambitious possible sense.
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