Scheduled for publication this November, Atlanta Art Now is the kind of project that, over time, could have an immensely positive impact on how cultural life in our city is understood. While books such as Charles Rutheiser’s iconic study, Imagineering Atlanta, document the city’s century-long struggle towards forging an identity that isn’t negative or vague to the point of comedy, Atlanta Art Now could be one of several watersheds leading in the other direction. Problems of reputation often originate from poor self-image: Atlanta will have to give itself more credit than it has in the past, propelling the perceptions that fuel reality towards something brighter, smarter, and more distinct. The Atlanta Contemporary Art Center will host an informational session beginning at 6PM, Wednesday, March 16, 2011.
Two months have passed since Possible Futures announced Cinque Hicks as the creative director of the first book in the series. When we spoke over the phone, his voice showed only a hint of exhaustion, which was overshadowed by his excitement at seeing the work begin to materialize. The conversation was cut short, but he agreed to answer a few questions by email that appear below.
Jeremy Abernathy: What are the major themes that the book will address? What are you hoping readers will get out of their encounter with the book? What image of Atlanta is your team advancing forward for other cities to see, and how does this differ from similar portrayals?
Cinque Hicks: We’re looking at themes of urban space and the idea of place in the 21st century. Atlanta in many ways anticipated many of the patterns of development in the rest of the country for better and for worse. Places like New York and Boston are modern cities. Atlanta is in some sense the premiere post-modern city and a template for every other post-modern metropolis now springing up around the world. It’s also a network city rather than a centralized city. There aren’t central gathering spaces, such as you’d see in traditional urbanism. Rather it’s networked. Atlanta works on the logic of neural transmitters or the internet. It’s radically multi-nodal. Wherever you are, that’s the center.
But that’s just an idea. I don’t think we’re trying to advance an image of the city other than an image that there’s some thinking going on: some self-reflective and rigorous thinking about art and about where we live. This book isn’t being sponsored by the tourist bureaus. We’re under no obligation to paint some false, cheery image of the city. We are under an obligation to be intellectually honest and to follow where our inquiries lead us. From the outside looking in, that’s infinitely more interesting than just another plastic ad campaign insisting that everything is always wonderful always. It’s not our job to dictate what the city is. It’s our job to ask about what’s here and see what that adds up to. At bottom you’re asking about identity, but identity isn’t what’s imposed top-down from the beginning; it’s what emerges from the end of a process of responding to the world. Identity comes on the back end, not the front.
JA: What stage is the book in now? What have been the biggest obstacles, and what have been the most rewarding parts so far?
CH: Cathy Fox, Jerry Cullum, and I are madly researching and writing right now. The fact is that Cathy and Jerry are pretty much staying on schedule, but I have some ground to make up! This is fine because we’re early enough in the schedule that there’s time for that. I’ve been putting most of my energies toward creating a space for the book both within and outside Atlanta so that it gets the kind of attention I think it deserves, the kind of attention Atlanta’s various art scenes deserve.
I just got back from The Armory Show in New York where I spoke to several people about the project, and people responded to it with a kind of “finally!” reaction. There’s a real hunger for information about the art made in this city and, I think, a hunger for people to see this city as a source of intellectual engagement in the arts. You have lots of artists working here, but so often Atlanta’s artists, writers, and thinkers feel forced to either disengage from the city — to pretend that they’re somehow not here — or to engage with it, but then be limited by it. We’re doing something that allows us to reflect on the city, but where that reflection is not a limiting factor. Being an artist or an intellectual in Atlanta should allow you to expand into the rest of the world, not have to withdraw from it.
That’s a big challenge for how we frame this project: What kind of a thing is this? It’s like an art magazine, only not precisely. It’s a response to a pronounced need for more and deeper critical writing about art made in Atlanta, but beyond that, there are few models for the kind of thing we’re undertaking with this project. We’re in a new world where we’ve got to be creative about how art writing works, about how to track important ideas in our culture and how those ideas get made public in the wider world. Atlanta Art Now is intended to be one way of doing that.
JA: You mentioned your designer in another conversation, and I’m curious to ask about the look of the book. What will be its visual signature, and what does this profile reflect about Atlanta?
CH: The “visual signature” as you call it has, I think, transitioned over time. The designers are still working up sketches and samples, but I think we’ve all come around to the idea that it needs to be simple, simple, simple. From the beginning, Cathy advocated strongly that the design of the book not overwhelm the artwork itself. (There will be lots of artwork reproduced in the book.) I think we’ve all seen museum catalogs where the design is so busy or cumbersome that you can’t see the art. Well, we knew we didn’t want that.
But my contribution also has been to insist heavily on the exploration of ideas. The emphasis here is on how artists explore ideas or tap into larger conversations. Some artists do this more routinely than others. Visually, this will come through by way of an equal emphasis on text as on images. This isn’t just something to flip through and say “ooh and ahh.” It’s to be read for a real engagement in ideas, the same way you’d read a copy of ART PAPERS or any book of essays on contemporary art. Honestly, I hope this ends up on people’s desks at work or at school with lots of Post-it notes sticking out of it, not collecting dust on people’s coffee tables.
JA: What criteria have you used for artists to include? Can you tell us about anyone who’s in it?
CH: “Criteria” is the wrong word; it suggests that this book is some sort of contest or registry. It’s not. We’re simply following some real ideas that artists are already dealing with, and so we’re researching and writing about the artwork dealing with those ideas in an interesting way. I guess there’s the minimal criterion that we’re focusing on work that has an active engagement with the metro region of Atlanta. And the work we look at is “contemporary,” in the narrow sense of the word. That is, we’re interested in work that shows an awareness of the here and now, in terms of art history, or that has something to say about the contemporary world we inhabit, or both.
But as I said before, there aren’t many models for this kind of project out there. Actually, there are precisely zero that I’m aware of that are doing exactly what Possible Futures is trying to accomplish with this project. What that means is that we’ve had to figure out along the way exactly what the format is. And it has changed dramatically from the initial conversations. It’s a work in progress. I can’t say just yet who we’re writing about because it’s not set in stone yet. But in retrospect, I think we went about that the wrong way. In future editions of this book, I don’t think the writers should play such a hide-and-seek game about who they’re writing about. I think that sends the wrong message; again, it tends to imply that some sort of contest model is at work, which may have been true at one point, but isn’t true any more. My recommendation in the future would be to undertake the writing with artists rather than around artists, just as you’d do with any other book. But that’s my opinion; my co-writers might not agree with me on that.
JA: In what ways have you incorporated input from the community? What motivated your decision to form an advisory group? What would you say to anyone who thought that their opinion would not be heard?
CH: Part of figuring out the model for this project is also figuring out what the appropriate level of community ownership is. There are two projects: There’s the book series intended as an ongoing vehicle — if it works, it’ll be a biannual publication — and then there’s each individual book within the series. And it may make sense to take more input in the ongoing vehicle than into the individual books. In other words, we’ve all been listening to people in our personal conversations about what they’d like to see the book series accomplish and places where they see potholes or stumbling blocks. But, when it comes to the individual book, that emerges from the particular analytical vision of a specific set of critics. I think people looking for rigorous analysis would be disappointed if we came to our conclusions through some system of vote taking rather than through scholarly research, which is what we excel at.
The advisory group you’re talking about is the Interdisciplinary Advisory Group and has more to do with the life of the book as an object in the community than with the content, per se. They actually have nothing to do with the content. The group [is a response to] the fact that the arts tend to do better in communities that cross-pollinate — where visual art feeds on ideas found in film or in literature, and where dance is in conversation with theater and music, for example. About the only place you see this happening in Atlanta with any regularity is in hip-hop, where there’s a robust conversation between forms at a critical level. Outside of that, the disciplines are quite divided up here. At least that’s my experience.
So the group is designed to counter that isolation somewhat. We’ve got folks like Leatrice Ellzy from the National Black Arts Festival and Susan V. Booth from the Alliance Theatre in the group. We’re going to put the full list up on the website. The group also emerges from my own experience of watching theatre or dance people, for example, attempt to communicate with visual artists, clearly having no idea that visual artists think in a different way and use their own language and methods for getting things done. I didn’t want to repeat that mistake in the other direction. If we’re going to attempt to communicate with people in the film or dance communities, I wanted to at least try and get the communication right.
The goals for this group are pretty modest. It’s a first attempt. If we emerge with a solid idea of everything we don’t know, that would be a success.
JA: What sort of programming do we have to look forward to? Will there be a launch event?
CH: There will of course be a launch event! That will take place in November. As far as other programming, I’ll be making a series of public presentations myself, mostly to talk about the book, the art, and the ideas we cover. I know Possible Futures would also like to do some public panel presentations with artists, and they’re working that out now. Otherwise, I think some online or virtual activities are in the future as well. Given that this is a first time out, we’re playing it a little bit by ear to see what works and to see what we have time and budget for.