Last Friday the storefronts of Little Five Points became the site of Liquid Culture, a series of physical installations and movement-based interventions by the dance company, gloATL. Liquid Culture itself is a series that has included events at the intersection of North Highland and Glen Iris (the site of Sol LeWitt‘s often-forgotten 54 Columns) and the Lindbergh Center MARTA Station, culminating in two final performances at the intersection of Peachtree and 15th streets from 7:30-8:30 p.m. this Friday and Saturday, July 22-23, 2011.
In writing about only one part of the series, I have to recognize that I am failing to provide the full treatment these performances deserve. That said, I believe what I offer here will act as a holographic entry point that, just like each experience contained within Liquid Culture, will contain resonances of previous performances and nascent precursors of future performances that have yet to begin to taking form. To appreciate what choreographer Lauri Stallings and gloATL set out to accomplish, we must attune ourselves to not only the movements of the dancers, but also the site where the performance took place.
Many contemporary arts practices target the dichotomy between comprehension and apprehension, and Liquid Culture is certainly one of these. “Apprehension” is an interesting word in itself, and its nuances will serve well in discussing what happened in Little Five Points last weekend. Apprehension has three connotations, each depending on the context in which the term appears. On any day in Little Five, for example, there’s a chance you will see the police apprehending a suspect. On the weekends in L5P, you can see the apprehension on the faces of suburban parents, careful to avoid interacting with the homeless and “road kids” as they trail behind their awkward adolescents. Then there is the mental act of apprehending, which is not the same as comprehending. To apprehend signifies something like an intuitive knowledge that, while now known, is difficult to communicate in words, so we cannot say that we comprehend, entirely, what we apprehend.
To do justice to the sources of inspiration that inform gloATL, and Lauri Stallings’s choreography in particular, we have to think about process. Stallings has on several occasions discussed her interest in Nicolas Bourriaud as well as Guy Debord, two French theorists who are famous for attempting to untangle the relationship between the artist and audience.
Bourriaud first made a name for himself in curating and then publishing essays about art practices in the early 1990s. His collection of essays entitled Relational Aesthetics has been for the last decade a source of both aped admiration and insouciance. His emphasis upon interstices, the spaces in between, has played a notable role in gloATL’s performances. We can see the interstitial being examined in L5P very readily, as the dancing tended to happen in very, very small spaces. But this is only the beginning of what makes gloATL’s interactions with these spaces significant.
In his Society of the Spectacle, Debord theorized that social life has become enervated by what he calls the spectacle. The spectacle “corresponds to the historical moment at which the commodity completes its colonization of social life …. The world that we see is the world of the commodity.” Debord’s words help in understanding why Stallings would want to locate part of Liquid Culture in Little Five Points.
It’s not that L5P is a gaudy spectacle and so we can dismiss it as simply spectral; Little Five Points is very real. But it is not the special place that everyone told me about when I first moved to Atlanta. The myth of L5P is that it continues to be a locus of counter culture—the Greenwich Village of the South. (For examples of this mythology, visit the websites littlefivepoints.com and littlefivepoints.net, both associated with the Little Five Points Business Association.)
The most recent update of this counter-culture myth is from Atlanta’s André Benjamin in his cartoon Class of 3000. In both the cartoon and musical starring Benjamin, his character shares a vision of Little Five Points as a creative hub in a city that could use some more free-spirited self-expression. It is in Little Five that Benjamin’s character, a music teacher named Sunny Bridges, finds himself as the way-cool, creative engine that his pupils admire.
I love this idea of Little Five Points, and, on occasions such as during the Halloween Parade, I think this Little Five might still be possible. But, having lived and worked around L5P for the last five years, I know that its reality does not match the myth, and I feel I have a special access to understanding why Stallings and gloATL refer to their Liquid Culture installations as “utopia stations.”
Introduced into the English language by Sir Thomas More in the 16th century, the term “utopia” in Greek carries a double meaning: “good place” and “no place.” Little Five Points is such a good (no) place. There was some pushback against the massive Edgewood retail district — some folks felt that suburban pockmarks like Best Buy and Target have no place in a thriving urban center. But the truth is that Little Five Points has always existed as one thing: the shopping mall for Atlanta’s suburbs. If you’ve been to one shopping mall (probably even more clear if you’ve worked in one), you’ve been to all shopping malls. In this sense L5P is no place in particular; to quote Neil Young, “everybody knows this is nowhere.” The (no) placeness of Atlanta, as Cinqué Hicks and the Atlanta Art Now editors have stated, is perhaps the dominant feature of Atlanta’s cultural landscape.
If we accept the myth that Little Five Points is a bastion of counter culture and free expression, then you were not listening to the crowds in Little Five on the night that gloATL performed. Little Five is a highly-policed zone, not just from the small precinct, but also from the perennial presence of suburbanites that are L5P’s primary occupants throughout weekends and school holidays. Little Five is a place where being different is a pejorative statement. There were several incidents where audience members were more than happy, safely ensconced in their packs of “nonconformists,” to issue verbal abuses to the dancers. I saw one group of teens that, after mocking a dancer in a shop window, sheepishly giggled as they realized that one of gloATL’s dancers was sitting beside them. No reasonable adult that walks through L5P hasn’t had this experience.
Yes, Little Five, and the Inman Park neighborhood, had an inspiring run in the 1970s and into the 80s, organizing against big development firms and a sour and disgraceful history. The Little Five Points and Inman Park of thirty years ago helped to create one of the largest parks in the city, Freedom Park, with a bicycle path connecting the birth place of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., to Stone Mountain (thus fulfilling the promise in “I Have a Dream” that freedom would ring from the top of Stone Mountain). The significance of this gesture comes into relief as we consider the last time a connection between downtown Atlanta and Stone Mountain had been sanctioned by the City: Memorial Drive, a memorial to the Confederate dead. What came to be called Memorial Drive was, until the Civil Rights era, called Fair Street, leaving us to wonder how it sounded when the developers of that time argued against having a street named Fair and instead building a grand monument to Stone Mountain, the site where the Ku Klux Klan reconvened in 1915.
Given such a recently charged history, we current citizens of Atlanta should admire the political aspirations and determination of the people in and around Inman Park and Little Five Points. But that Little Five Points is no longer. R. Land’s Yuppie Ghetto Over-priced Shitoles is much more true of Little Five than the idyll that many residents still cling to (myself included).
gloATL, in a sense, killed Little Five Points. This is why Cynthia Bond Perry of ArtsCriticATL reports feeling a charged, uncomfortable atmosphere at the performance; gloATL’s intervention announced a threshold moment in the life of Little Five Points. Perry writes:
With slurred speech, he told the crowd that he was going to show them how to dance. Dancers dispersed, leaving Mary Jane Pennington alone behind the glass. The man confronted her, pointed to her shorts and said, ‘Take it off.’ He drew an ‘X’ with his finger on the glass and started banging on the window. Three men, friends of gloATL, coaxed him away, but he followed the performance to the end.
By being brought to an awareness of Little Five’s stale and stultifying environment, we can begin to ask questions about what Little Five Points could be.
This is where Stallings’s discussion of relational aesthetics is significant. A central term in Bourriaud’s analysis is the “interstice,” a term borrowed and developed from Karl Marx that refers to small gaps. Interstices that exist between us are not simply empty spaces between static terminals; they are also openings, launching-off points, sites where difference becomes possible. Interstitial spaces are signs of life in so far as life is an activity characterized by the generation of possibilities. In staging their dance in these small, interstitial spaces in Little Five Points, Stallings and gloATL presented Little Five as a place where political action might be possible again. Rather than a grand utopian promise that all of us must cleave to (and be cleaved by), Liquid Culture presents us with microtopias.
Kathleen Covington, a board member for gloATL, told BURNAWAY in a recent interview that Stallings “designs the performance to create a unique experience for each audience member,” and “her big goal is to bring art to where their everyday lives are.” In Cynthia Bond Perry’s well-written documentation of Liquid Culture, there is a moment where Perry states that what she finds thrilling about gloATL’s performance is that they inspire a sense of possibility in everyday life. But I contest that this kind of thinking is flawed: Isn’t this determination that there is such a thing as “everyday life,” and then that there are “events” that exist outside it, already a position leaning towards giving up on possibility? The concept of everyday life, of business as usual, is anathema to the political courage that Atlanta’s citizens have shown throughout history. Atlanta’s remarkable past has always been made by those that challenge the business-as-usual attitude.
But we, as witnesses to these creations in our city, also have to do some of the heavy lifting. If we are to be critics (and more than just observers), we must accept and allow that, after a creative encounter, we will be changed in that creative process. This is one of the challenges that I consistently see in gloATL’s performances, and this is the promise that I suspect many of us feel in Atlanta’s creative communities today. A change is coming.
John Ramspott’s photographs and interviews with Lauri Stallings and Kathleen Convington of gloATL were essential in the writing of this review (as was Cynthia Bond Perry’s article for ArtsCriticATL). Click here for Ramspott’s photos on Flickr.