By the time our group arrived in Atlanta’s Castleberry Hill arts district on October 1, the evening’s first scheduled performances were already underway. It was the night of FLUX 2010, downtown Atlanta’s annual one-night public art event organized by Flux Projects. People on the street nearby were visibly grinning with anticipation; whether they had attended a previous year’s celebration or not, expectations were high.
But even within the first hour, we already could sense that FLUX was not the same event that Le Flash was. Five hours later, we emerged with ample fuel for debate. There were many art projects we loved, a few we didn’t like, and at least one we could agree was amazing. And we had a whole list of questions that needed answers. Why did the artwork this year feel more contemplative and less energetic or bombastic than last year? What was the value of presenting fewer works of art but—quite generously—providing more money for commissioned projects? And to what degree was it even fair for us to judge FLUX by the standards of what two people remember about Le Flash?
Back to the past
Flux Projects began in 2009 and launched its first artistic commission, Lauri Stallings’s dance performance at Lenox Square mall titled Bloom, this February. However, 2010 was the first year that the October event was under all new management.
“We learned a lot this year,” said Flux executive director Anne Dennington in a phone interview on Wednesday.
The event called Le Flash premiered in October of 2008 under the leadership of its two inventors, curators Cathy Byrd and Stuart Keeler. Although the first year suffered due to rainy weather, Le Flash returned to Castleberry Hill in 2009 commanding a rare groundswell of both emerging and established artists, in both the visual and performing arts, to create an evening filled with light-based ephemera.
Although the organizers of Le Flash and FLUX maintain a distinction between the two events, there’s no debate on the part of the audience that FLUX is the successor to Le Flash. That continuity is part of the narrative in which the art is experienced and understood.
Flux capacity, upgraded
Logistics—mostly in the form of crowd services—were important benchmarks for 2010. The aspects of event planning that are usually invisible when done right are also the ones that are the most glaring when screwed up. For instance, the streets were not closed in 2008, and performances were mostly confined to the sidewalk. But this year pedestrians had roads fully to themselves. For an event of such size and ambition, bathroom access was abysmal in 2008 and even 2009, considerably limiting the amount of time visitors could stay comfortably before leaving downtown. But this year there were outdoor restrooms and vendors for beer and food, too.
Flux Projects estimates that attendance this year grew to between 8,500 and 10,000. While the advertising budget for Le Flash was negligible, Flux Projects spent approximately $9,000 for all marketing including online, print, and other promotion. Readers of Creative Loafing newspaper couldn’t help but notice weeks of large ad placements leading up to FLUX.
So what about the artwork? Projects that we liked
The first work we experienced that night, Zoetic Dance Ensemble‘s Click at Castleberry Point, was triumphantly optimistic, athletic, and quick to digest without being too simplistic. While ebullient, the introduction set a tone distinct from what we expected based on the previous year: Rather than spilling out into the streets, the dance-and-lights show politely contained itself within the performance space. As we drifted elsewhere, an undercurrent of restraint seemed to course through the evening.
A poetically raw interior served as backdrop to Rebecca Hanna and Erin Palovick’s performance, On Closeness; And the Inexhaustibility of the Subject. The piece took place inside a spacious warehouse room with bare wooden floors and a low ceiling. Inside a perimeter marked with salt-like crystals were two lonely bathtubs and almost nothing else. Recalling Millet’s Gleaners, the pair labored in their humble gowns, interrupting their work with fragments of wordless intimacy before continuing their chores within their dreamlike domestic circle.
On the street, meditative moments continued. Recorded voices of immigrants relating their experiences of coming to the United States played beside a large, nearly-complete American flag in Carolina Rubio MacWright’s We Are All Immigrants Here. As the stories played, the artist slowly sewed the donated clothing of immigrants from various generations to create the fabric of her new monumental flag. By using these intimate objects and the voices of the immigrants, MacWright set a stage in which volatile political issues could be addressed quietly, insistently, and utterly without bombast.
Even the standout piece of the evening, Micah and Whitney Stansell’s Between You and Me—a work that could easily have held its own at any international art fair—evoked more quietude than one would imagine possible in a colossal five-channel video. Flux Projects reports that the work required five 35,000-lumen projectors to achieve the scale and intensity the Stansells required. By contrast, the light output of a typical classroom projector measures closer to 1,000 lumens. The film projections spanned horizontally across several entire units of the Norfolk Southern building on Spring Street.
Here, a patchwork narrative following six characters came to life within an iconic urban landscape: a shadowy railyard below and glowing high-rises behind. One could argue that the Atlanta skyline was an integral component of the experience. The implied symbolism of an open fault line between worlds—between the skyscrapers of a modern-day Mount Olympus and a chthonic, industrial underworld—was breathtaking. The sight inspired civic pride in what Atlanta is able to achieve.
Click here for a documentary about Between You and Me by Proper Medium.
Click here for a video by Sandy Hooper documenting Between You and Me on the night of FLUX.
Advocacy versus curatorship
But these unexpected luxuries of grace, though welcome, did not manage to entirely counterbalance the frustrations of the evening. In contrast to the previous year, in terms of sheer quantity, the overall mood was Spartan. And this sparseness was even noticed by some visitors who were experiencing the event for the first time.
(It doesn’t help that there are dramatically fewer galleries in Castleberry Hill today than there were two years ago. Hopefully the influx of new activity promoted by FLUX will help reverse the neighborhood trend.)
The decision to showcase fewer projects didn’t automatically make FLUX 2010 flawed; quality over quantity is almost always the right choice. Limiting the program was commendable in theory, but in practice it forced far fewer projects to occupy a footprint that had been overflowing with work under Le Flash.
The biggest difference was the model for funding and selecting artwork. Le Flash 2009 featured over 50 projects, but this year that number was nearly cut in half. FLUX 2010 presented 14 commissioned projects that were funded based on budgets provided by the artists and agreed to by the organizers, ranging from as little as $26 to nearly $30,000 (for Micah and Whitney Stansell’s Between You and Me). These were joined by 13 affiliated projects that received marketing and logistical benefits from their association with the event, but were funded by artists or other sponsors.
During our interview, Anne Dennington argued against the accuracy of characterizing FLUX as more “contemplative” or “sparse” than Le Flash. She pointed out that Flux Projects could not fairly support the same artists year after year. FLUX might have seemed more contemplative, she said, because the larger projects chosen this year happened to be quieter and less extroverted.
And the organization behind Le Flash was not able to financially support its artists the way Flux Projects has. Even last year’s featured work by Lauri Stallings, the bombastic roaming street dance titled Pour, was commissioned by a private donor, Louis Corrigan. That performance had a budget closely comparable in size to this year’s featured work by Micah and Whitney Stansell, although their costs were supplemented by new outside sponsors.
But we should also point out that Le Flash was curated in a way that FLUX was not. Selections for both the commissioned and affiliated projects were conducted by committee. The distinction that artworks are no longer limited to the light-based theme is less important than the fact that Flux Projects did not provide a central artistic vision.
Projects with awkward placement
The event also would have profited by focusing as much attention on where things were sited as which projects were featured. Given the physical distance between projects, it was challenging to relate one project to the next. At some point, the evening became as much about seeking art as it was about actually looking at it. During these moments of wandering aimlessly, with open beer containers in hand, it became harder to entertain the distinction between “public art event” and “festival.”
Some projects fought to situate themselves in their location. Wedged against a wall on Walker Street, the placement of Amber Boardman’s video project Visual Concerts, accompanied by the breathtaking talent of flutist Jessica Peek Sherwood felt like an afterthought. Ralph Brancaccio and Ed and Linda Calhoun’s Lima Lives! might have been far more compelling if shown in a smaller, alternative arena. Instead, the work was uncomfortably swallowed by the same wall that was so skillfully utilized by Danielle Roney’s project the year before. Had the Art Officials, with their play on hip-hop club culture and celebrity as performance, shifted just down the road from Castleberry Point over to Peters Street, club-goers awaiting entry would have been given the opportunity to participate in their autograph signing along with the art-going crowd.
Back to the future
The logic behind scaling back was understandable. Take any introductory class in economics: Most likely within the first lecture, the professor will mention the concept of opportunity costs. In any economy there is a limit to what is possible to produce. With limited resources, a decision to produce more of one good means less production of an alternate good. Instinctively we understand this: Life is about tradeoffs, and there is only so much we can do with what we have. This isn’t a cause for despair, however. It simply encourages us to make smart decisions.
FLUX 2010 would have benefited from a strong, dedicated artistic director. Although many of the works in this year’s event were worthwhile, they would have been shown to their best advantage with a vision that considered not only content but also context.
“I am not a curator,” said Anne Dennington during our interview, demonstrating a healthy degree of humility and self-knowledge. She further stated that Flux Projects is interested in speaking with independent curators to hear their ideas for the future.
Being an advocate for artists’ compensation has been an urgent priority that Dennington has been more readily equipped to address. And in that department she is doing a great job.
Despite the frustrations of FLUX 2010, Atlanta should be excited knowing there is an organization that is dedicated to keeping art in public spaces in a very big way. This year saw improvements in everything from streamlined parking, to offering a bicycle valet, to the enormous significance that more artists received more financial support for their contributions.
Flux Projects is pushing the possibilities of public art in our city forward, joining a growing international interest in the practice of art outside of its usual white-walled context. Although we may have practical gripes about specific details, we still believe that this movement and the support behind it has been one of the best things to happen to the city’s engagement with art in years.
And why shouldn’t we feel strongly about whether events like FLUX live up to their full potential? Community ownership is an important part of what will maintain the distinction between mediocre art festivals and what can be truly and proudly called a public art event.
(Disclosure: Louis Corrigan, the founder of Flux Projects, is also the founder of Possible Futures, a foundation that provided a significant grant to this publication. However, the grant was given unconditionally and with the understanding that, among other reasons, “meaningful arts criticism is vital in that it challenges artists to do their best work.”)