As far as Atlanta's street life goes, it's barely alive.
Thick forests of razor wire, overgrown lots, discarded tires and boarded up buildings can make getting around town an unpleasant chore at best and downright dangerous at worst. There are a few lively mini-environments: Little Five Points or the West End for example. But moving from one to another requires hopscotching through urban wastelands. Even Atlanta's tonier districts and suburbs sometimes feel less a part of a city than a desert of parking lots surrounded by the homes of people who suffer unforgiving commutes for the privilege of parking in those lots.
Earlier this month, I joined a number of Atlanta's contemporary art aficionados in a very different kind of city: Miami. That's where Art Basel, the so-called Super Bowl of the art world, took place in an alternate universe of sunshine, music and high-rolling art deals. And people. Lots and lots of people throughout the city who enlivened the light-filled streets and friendly sidewalks.
It's not exactly fair to compare Atlanta's worst stretches to Miami's best during a global festival. But the contrast does reveal with startling clarity how dysfunctional many of Atlanta's streetscapes are and, on the other hand, what a city full of vibrant public spaces might look like.
An increasing number of artists have looked anew at Atlanta's public space in the last year and found it rife with untapped potential. Dozens of muralists, dancers, sculptors and even writers have triggered a street life — at least temporarily — where there was none. Defying our notoriously divisive urban design, they've offered relief from the sometimes bleak surroundings the city's architects and urban planners have left us with. And in so doing, they've reminded us what being in a city is all about — the human contact, the everyday magic of chancing upon someone else's bright idea.
Eyedrum's Living Walls art show and conference pushed an already vibrant and hotly contested street art culture to the forefront. John Morse's "Roadside Haiku" project focused on all-too-familiar weight loss and home-business roadside advertising to jolt passersby into a new awareness of the space outside their cars. And a steady stream of city-sponsored public artwork, such as Louis Delsarte's MLK Memorial on Boulevard and Art on the Beltline, flowed from the city.
Artists who put their bodies in public space are even more provocative given how hard it is to get people out of their cars and onto the streets. Stuart Keeler's "Aerge to Walk" featured the artist simply walking long distances in the city in various brightly colored getups. Artist collective John Q's "Memory Flash" resuscitated the past by taking over public spaces to dig up traces of Atlanta's gay history.
But Atlanta's inhospitable streets can trip up the best: One of the most talked about of all the artists laying claim to public space is choreographer Lauri Stallings, probably best known in Atlanta for her work with modern dance troupe gloATL. Stallings' dancers performed artistic CPR on Castleberry Hill in 2009 at the street art festival Le Flash, filling the entire district with the unexpected breath of public dance.
Unsurprisingly then, gloATL's performance last month in Woodruff Park featuring hometown rapper Big Boi was greeted with the breathless anticipation of still more magic. The collaboration, called Hinterland and produced by Luminocity Atlanta, was supposed to create "an entirely new way for people to experience downtown Atlanta" through light, dancers, costumes and music.
Apparently, "entirely new way" referred to entirely new levels of disappointment and frustration. Many who attended the event complained that they could hear little and could see even less. Bad logistics meant that few saw enough of the performance even to say whether it was good or bad.
In many ways, the street experiment failed to deliver on its promises.
But the purpose of experiments is not that they always succeed; it's that they show us what's left to figure out. Art events like Hinterland aren't just about gathering an audience, they're about creating a public. They're about the group shock therapy of seeing the city with new eyes and coming away feeling like you suddenly have something in common with other Atlantans that you didn't before.
Hinterland reveals how hard it is to animate the streets, how much we need to overcome to gather diverse crowds, and how much we need to work to bring art into everyday life.
I'm looking forward to a new year and a new slate of public performances and festivals that keep trying to do as much. Public artists haven't given up on Atlanta. They haven't abandoned the streets. They've embraced them and defiantly attempted to instill life in them. Atlanta isn't an urban wonderland like Miami, but Atlanta artists are giving their city a wonder all its own.
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