ArtsATL > Art+Design > Flux Night 2013: A dialogue on the highs, lows and challenges of public art

Flux Night 2013: A dialogue on the highs, lows and challenges of public art

Micah and Whitney Stansil (Photo by Stephanie Cash)
Pablo Bronstein's "Plaza Minuet": Automatons as a metaphor for modern life? (Photo by Stephanie Cash)
Pablo Bronstein’s “Plaza Minuet”: Automatons as a metaphor for modern life? (Photo by Stephanie Cash)

On the night of Saturday, October 5, ArtsATL critics Andrew Alexander and Stephanie Cash wandered Atlanta’s Castleberry Hill district, along with more than 20,000 others, to take in the 20 large-scale projects, various sideshows and ambience of Flux Night, the annual arts festival.

Stephanie Cash: This was my first Flux Night. How does it compare to previous iterations?

Andrew Alexander: It seemed much stronger in past years, both in terms of individual works and as an overall event. My principal criticism is that it was jumbled and lacked cohesiveness –not in the sense of whether one work was connected to another visually or thematically, but rather that, due to logistics, it didn’t even seem like an event with art as its focus. It felt like a pleasant street fair. A combination of things may have contributed to this: the complicated layout and topography of that neighborhood, the dispersal of works, the tacked-on elements, and non-Flux-curated things like food vendors, galleries and body painting.

Yet it was great to see so many people out on the street, enjoying the evening, enjoying engaging with art, enjoying being in each other’s presence — something all too rare here.

Cash: Like you, I was disappointed that it felt mostly like a street fair and not an art event. Besides being too spread out, it was irksome that some works were still being set up well after its 7 p.m. opening. We had to make a couple of passes to see works that weren’t ready on time and decided to skip a couple that required too much backtracking.

Inside Rhonda Weppler's and Trevor Mahovsky's "Late Night Convenience." (Photo by Stephanie Cash)
Inside Rhonda Weppler’s and Trevor Mahovsky’s “Late Night Convenience.” (Photo by Stephanie Cash)

“Late Night Convenience,” a commissioned project by Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky, was a popular stop for people looking to pick up a glowing souvenir: acetate copies of Colgate toothpaste, Jiffy cornbread, Campbell’s soup, boiled peanuts etc., lit from within. Free art! My opinion of this installation kept changing. At first I liked it, then I thought it too facile and crowd-pleasing, and then I had to ask myself whether that mattered, since it was one of the better works. I’m all for community-based art and attracting new audiences, but if they don’t know they’re at an art event and looking at “art,” is it successful or just a sideshow? Is it enough to just plop art down in front of uninitiated viewers and hope they get it?

"Fountain" by Oswaldo Macia. (Photo by Stephanie Cash)
“Fountain” by Oswaldo Macia. (Photo by Stephanie Cash)

Alexander: Oswaldo Macia’s “Fountain” was an ugly object, without much aesthetic rigor or interest. The description on the website says that the “piece reflects our comfort-seeking, supersize-me culture.” A bit mean-spirited, don’t you think? “Here’s an ugly fountain to tell you how greedy and imbecilic you are.” And I couldn’t smell vanilla, which was supposedly a crucial element of the work.

Cash: That one was poorly executed. I couldn’t smell vanilla either, which made the milky water just seem gross. It was also supposed to be “surgingly phallic,” which I suppose it was in a general squirting way. The Macia and Weppler-Mahovsky works were two of six selected by Helena Reckitt, the first Flux curator. I think it’s good to bring in international curators who have the knowledge and ability to cast a wider net. Yet I have to say, some of the projects that were selected by a Flux committee from open call submissions were also among my favorites.

Overall, I thought the live and interactive projects were the most successful. Atlanta artist Michi Meko’s involved a heavyset black man frozen in a pose with upturned hands, perhaps a gesture of plea or disbelief. I swear the man never blinked! Of course, that then made me think of endurance-performance artists like Marina Abramovic and, because of the fair-like setting, those statue-like street performers covered in metallic paint. In a way, the ambiguity made the piece more broadly appealing. Any prankster associations were dispelled by a banner explaining that the soundtrack comprisedsongs played to wake up the souls of Negro men that were forced to lay railroad tracks in and around Atlanta as the re-enslavement of Black Americans increased during the Civil War up to World War II.” Whew! The work was laden with site-specific meaning, too easily missed by the casual observer.

Michi Meko: “The job of the resurrectors is to wake up the dead.”  (Photo by Stephanie Cash)
Michi Meko: “The job of the resurrectors is to wake up the dead.” (Photo by Stephanie Cash)

The CORE Performance Company’s piece, set in an empty lot, mingled ordinary folk among the dancers and was perfectly suited to the event’s theme of “Free Association.” It was a bit confusing – seemingly random milling about — until I realized what was happening. Anyone could jump into the mix with “guided participation,” which explained some of the odd Monty Python movements.

Nearby was Pablo Bronstein’s “Plaza Minuet,” brought in by Reckitt. It similarly involved a group of women performing loosely choreographed movements along a plotted-out diagram on the street. Though there was nothing to prevent visitors from wandering onto their “stage,” people respected their boundary, which made for an interesting contrast to the CORE piece, where there were no boundaries. The performers seemed like automatons. Maybe a metaphor for modern life?

Alexander: CORE and Bronstein’s work were wonderful surprises. It felt delightfully strange, especially with CORE, to enter a separate sphere where everything was clicking at a slightly different pace. I could feel my mind slowing down. Everything at Flux is so visually hyper-stimulating, competing for attention (often in a good way), but the dance felt wonderfully apart. It was like coming across someone meditating or chanting in a busy airport; they weren’t obtrusive or exclamatory, but you couldn’t help but want to be pulled into that world.

It’s interesting you thought of Bronstein’s piece as a metaphor for modern life. The dancers were actually dancing in different, somewhat incompatible styles (this may have been something only dance nerds would notice), but you picked up on their incompatibility.

Cash: Justin Thompson’s piece, “Traveling Shoes,” had a makeshift wall separating an immobile “marching” band and a shoeshine station, where the artist applied gold leaf to the shoes of willing participants. Thompson says the piece is about ascension as well as a reversal of hierarchy, where the lowly shoeshiner becomes a gatekeeper of sorts, providing the “traveling shoes” needed when death comes calling. But it seemed that, for many people, this piece was akin to the face-painting booths you see at street fairs. Sit down, get painted, carry on.

A couple of projects selected by Reckitt were very thoughtful and complex, and possibly a little cheated by the setting. A lot of people congregated at Eileen Simpson’s and Ben White’s project, a high-energy open-mike event where emcees and rappers signed up to perform. Crucially, the background beats and samples were remixes of songs copyrighted in Atlanta from 1927 to 1930. The artists’ intent is to engage issues of copyright, intellectual property and the ownership and distribution of art. Does knowing that change the experience? Not really.

In a similar vein, Deanna Bowen’s “The Paul Good Papers: Atlanta Reels” used audio recordings from Atlanta’s civil rights era that were made by ABC’s Southern Bureau chief. The website says that “actor Marci T. House performs alongside 50-year-old recordings from sit-ins in downtown Atlanta in November 1963 and January-March 1964.” I twice hit this at the wrong time. The soundtrack was playing, but I  saw only a glowing white screen with occasional flashes of imagery. Did you see the video projection or performer?

Alexander: I did see and hear the Bowen work, but I wasn’t sure how to respond. I happened to pass by during some pretty racist, homophobic talk, amplified over loudspeakers. It’s important to look at your past and all that, but I’m not sure what was to be gained from dredging it up in just that way. It just felt like something found in an archive and then dumped on the street.

Cash: As I stood there, someone handed me a card with a QR code that takes you to a website showing a recently shot short video of one of the five protest sites along with an archival news story. [All five can be viewed here.] Mine took me to the former site of the Riviera Motel, where 70 demonstrators were arrested during a U.N. dinner. That site is now partly occupied by SCAD and, of course, an apartment building. I love this project’s layering of history and this informational kind of interactivity.

Alexander: I wish Bowen could have brought some of that mapping and layered history, as you put it, to the performance itself. In speaking of some of the other performance works a moment ago, you reasonably wondered if visitors to Flux were approaching them in the right frame of mind. I think that’s an interesting point. The most successful pieces seem to invite or even create the right frame of mind.

Micah and Whitney Stansell's "An inversion (with sky and land)." (Photo by Stephanie Cash)
Micah and Whitney Stansell’s “An inversion (with sky and land).” (Photo by Stephanie Cash)

For me, the strongest work of the night was Micah and Whitney Stansell’s “An inversion (with sky and land).” The idea was ingeniously simple: to project daytime sky into the night sky through the use of an overhead screen. The execution was lovely: the images of the sky, the fluttering white banners, the way it occupied an entire block. It was touching to see people stopping to watch, crouching or even lying in the street to photograph it. The project description contained no broad conceptual underpinnings related to history or our culture or capitalism and, indeed, no mention at all of what the viewer was meant to take away. In my view, it is just this sort of openness in a work, this lack of didacticism, that actually allows for contemplation and resonance. It depends on a sense of trust, initiated by the artist, but one that develops between artist and viewer in the unfolding of the work.

Cash: I thought the Stansell piece was pretty, and I liked the way it changed the light underneath, but I’d say it brought to mind fluttering garments on a clothesline more than weighty stuff like capitalism.

A scene from Sasha Krieger's video projection, "Soliloquy."
A scene from Sasha Krieger’s video projection, “Soliloquy.”

I also really liked — with a nod to Christian Marclay — Sasha Krieger’s video projection cobbled together from film clips of actors repeatedly shouting “Hello” and “Is anybody there?” It was amusing, and after a while it seemed like they were addressing the hordes of people passing by unaware that it wasn’t just another nightclub projection (and yes, I know those can be mighty arty and even made by “artists”).

Alexander: For me, the best works I’ve seen at Flux –the Stansells’ projections, gloATL’s “Livers,” Jane Garver’s “Boxes” and more — all share a sense of openness to the viewer. They are large-scale without being insistently flashy, noisy or obtrusive; inventive without feeling effortfully or self-consciously so; smart, lively and resonant with ideas without ever seeming politically preachy or sententious; and they all share a sort of generosity of spirit, a curiosity about finding new ways to make contact with the best, most curious parts of the viewer. I think finding more works like these would be a great direction for Flux Night.

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