Kristin Juárez writes this edition of her monthly column, The Fringe, in collaboration with Rachel Chamberlain and Susannah Darrow.
The upcoming inaugural volume of Atlanta Art Now, a biennial book series sponsored by Possible Futures, says a lot with its name. The title, Noplaceness: Art in a Post-urban Landscape, suggests a contemporary reality that breaks with the city’s historical roots in favor of a new cultural geography that understands the the city without resorting to the well-known urban/suburban dichotomy. The book attempts to insert Atlanta’s visual arts into a larger critical dialogue through an interdisciplinary discussion of specific artists, place-based identity, and globalization.
The three of us each have different connections to the city: a native of Atlanta (Darrow), a graduate student at Georgia State University (Chamberlain), and a transplant who moved here in 2010 (Juárez). As the book nears completion, we have attempted to digest the meaning, intentions, and implications of this ambitious project, beginning with its title. “Noplacessness” embodies the tension of navigating between the local and the nomadic in contemporary art, the need to recognize the specificity of Atlanta, and the desire to make connections to the global network.
We looked first to Cinqué Hicks, Atlanta Art Now’s creative director who also writes as an art critic for Creative Loafing, to learn his working definition of the term. Recognizing that the idea has different meanings for himself and collaborators Catherine Fox and Jerry Cullum, he explained the term’s origins: “I spent about three months intensively visiting artists’ studios, looking at work, reading about artists’ ideas …. What I noticed was how many artists seemed to be obsessed with this problem of place. Everyone was trying to figure out where they belonged—physically, culturally, historically. And I can’t tell you how many times various artists said the word ‘noplace’ or ‘caught in between’ or ‘being nowhere’ or some version of that phrase.
“We [Hicks, Cullum, and Fox] began to think about the common thread that tied this work and others together. What was the quality of place that everyone seemed to be grappling with? Well, it was an odd absence of place, a ‘noplaceness,’ an erasure of an inability to resolve ‘place’ the way we assume it can be resolved to a patch of land, a firm identity, or a known mother tongue. All of these certainties seemed to be in question.
“It so happened that that idea dovetailed with a few of the perpetual obsessions several of us had: ideas about urban space, how it’s experienced and manipulated, and the process of globalization, which of course has utterly changed our idea of place. Place now has to be thought of in much more fluid terms. Atlanta’s tradition of cutting up the urban fabric into hard-to-navigate, self-contained little pockets gives our city a particular relationship to noplaceness that’s unique.”
Here, Hicks introduces the crux of noplaceness as a function of two interrelated, but opposing, poles. The book describes a narrative with two protagonists: Atlanta, the city, and the local artists that live and work here. By looking specifically at artists in Atlanta, the project asserts an inextricable link between place and artistic production. Noplaceness reflects a liminal identity revolving around yet another pair of contrasting positions: where artists live (Atlanta) and where they “belong.”
In this context, place becomes the site where identity is projected, moving fluidly between the collective and the personal, physical and virtual spaces, and even distinct neighborhoods. Thinking locally, noplaceness reflects the unique quality of Atlanta’s geography, and frames a discussion of cultural production through the multi-centered, layered, and complicated reality of Atlanta.
As the book’s subtitle, Art in a Post-urban Landscape, promises to examine art made against the backdrop of shifting psychological space, it must also attempt to define this backdrop in terms of the unique qualities of the city. Hicks explained, “Now with digital communications and a FedEx on every corner, the distance between, say, the Georgia Tech campus and Mumbai is effectively zero. Meanwhile the gulf between the Georgia Tech campus and the West End is weirdly infinite.” By touching on the friction of local and global boundaries, Hicks acknowledges traces of the city’s complicated past and the political nature of place in Atlanta.
In a conversation with BURNAWAY, historian Cliff Kuhn outlined the city’s complicated notion of place, going all the way back to Atlanta’s beginning as Terminus in 1837. Kuhn explained: “The notion of place is really complicated in Southern history. Place signifies social status, and has a racial dimension—African Americans were told to know their place during Jim Crow. As part of this new rapidly growing Southern city, Atlanta was somewhere where a notion of place was always being imploded …. There has always been different Atlantas; there’s never been a unitary Atlanta—rural-born Atlanta or white-flight Atlanta or ethnic Atlanta.” Within this context, noplaceness has always been a part of Atlanta’s identity, as a city that is constantly changing and has a short collective memory.
Kuhn also reminded us of the city’s identity crisis during the planning of the 1996 Olympics. The Atlanta Committee for the Olympic Games created an embarrassing mascot named “Whatizit?” (later shortened to Izzy). The committee was stumped: Should they celebrate the internationalism of the New South, or the romantic hospitality of the Old South, something many would prefer to forget. Izzy literally begged the question of “What is Atlanta?”
But Atlanta Art Now also promises to outline the larger implications of noplacness as a “manifesto for twenty-first century geographies.” One press release asserted: “A certain breed of international city now boasts the same Starbucks, the same airport furniture, and the same asphalt landscapes whether in Los Angeles, Paris, or Singapore. All places threaten to become noplace in particular.” The release also stated, “Atlanta is both the pre-eminent noplace and the very template for the post-urban global metropolis, the model that generates all other places.” With this, the book emphasizes a different side of noplacessness, defining Atlanta within an international context and within contemporary urban theory.
Of course, the notion that Atlanta lacks an authentic sense of place is worth thinking about twice. The city is rich with a plurality of histories and socio-cultural realities. These realities diverge and intersect, sometimes in conflict over very real plots of land.
Yes, Atlanta does have its fair share of the same franchises, strip malls, and apartment complexes that line cities across the U.S. But these places have unique characteristics despite their corporateness. The Exxon Station at the corner of Ponce de Leon Avenue and Monroe Drive certainly plays host to its own socio-economic microcosm. Even Atlanta’s ubiquitous Kroger shopping centers have gained their own identities: we have Disco Kroger on Piedmont, Murder Kroger on Ponce, and Hipster Kroger in the Edgewood Shopping Center. Such sites have an effect on the artistic imagination, and, despite what theory may say about their authenticity, these are lived-in spaces with unique characteristics.
The city’s current reality is the result of a history unique to its man-made geography. The historic fracture of the Sweet Auburn neighborhood, the current diversity of Old Fourth Ward, and the remnants of color-coded neighborhoods signified by the change in street names—all exemplify Atlanta’s mired past of racial segregation.
What is the debate over the extension of MARTA into Atlanta’s various suburbs, if not a continuation of that history? What is Buckhead’s interest in ceding from the City of Atlanta, if not a very real political and economic battle over urban boundaries, social representation, and the negotiation of place?
It may be tempting to hitch Atlanta’s wagon to that “certain breed” of international cities. But, for us, the strength of Noplaceness, as a term and a book, derives from understanding Atlanta for its uniqueness, a value that is introspective and has broader implications.
For that reason, it will be particularly promising to see the distinct ways that Atlanta’s artists internalize the seemingly omnipresent commercial franchises, engage with the city’s layered history, and locate opportunities for social interaction and cultural exchange.
The opening chapter of the book, entitled “Battle Grounds: Spatial Contest and the Fictions of Place,” is described by Hicks in a teaser as a discussion of “competing political, socio-cultural, and economic claims.” One group considered in relationship to this artistic construction of urban space is the nonprofit organization called the Dirty Truth Campaign (or the 303 Community Coalition). The group exists to document and reinvent vacant properties around Atlanta into affordable housing for community residents. While the group in many ways does contribute to the continual narrative of Atlanta’s reinvention of self, the collective’s focus is the specificity of the neighborhoods they work within and the residents they work with. Even the new name of the organization, the 303 Community Coalition, directly references City of Atlanta zip codes. While the reinvention of vacant properties results in the creation of new urban spaces, it is the community members’ involvement in these properties that helps to retain its historically and socially established sense of place. Hence, while the physical location is reprised, it is the individuals themselves that help to generate its sense of place.
A later chapter in the book explores the idea of “The In-Between” where artists examine how culture develops as demographics shift. Artist Sheila Pree Bright’s Suburbia series is featured in this section. In Suburbia, Pree Bright largely photographs the interiors of people’s suburban homes. The suburbs in Atlanta, like in most major American cities, are traditionally linked to the larger national narrative of “white flight” and overdevelopment, they also represent other American values like wealth and stability. Pree Bright’s photographs disrupt the exclusivity of these values (for better or for worse) and the mainstream portrayal of African Americans by documenting a seemingly invisible section of culture: the existence of middle-class African American families living in suburbia. The images ask viewers to reassess their associations of blackness, culture, and class, and reconcile otherness in relationship to place. By documenting traces of racial identity, Pree Bright reflects a particular reality that combines traditionally disparate elements of middle-class suburbia and racial identity. While this series has predominantly been discussed in relation to the racial issues at play, in the context of this book, the images not only puncture the system of American values, they also point to the shifting geographical politics of Atlanta, and how cultural identity is no longer solely tied to (urban) place.
Perhaps the sense of “noplaceness” felt by Atlanta’s resident artists can be understood best as “everyplaceness”—or as “multiplaceness,” where the co-existence of multiple centers all inform artistic production. With factors that are both unique and universal, Atlanta’s artists have had to prove resourceful, which requires an ability to keep their footing in a number of dialogues at once.
It’s no wonder, then, that the terms “noplace,” “caught in between,” and “nowhere” continue to surface in Hicks’s conversations: for what working in Atlanta requires is a hybrid identity, one that can negotiate the competing histories, politics, technologies, and cultures that compose this city. In this way, Noplaceness may be a reflection of a fragmented identity, one that feels both everywhere and nowhere at once.
David Harvey writes, “The elaboration of place-bound identities has become more rather than less important in a world of diminishing spatial barriers to exchange, movement, and communication.” Atlanta Art Now promises to take up the challenge of taking the pulse of Atlanta, revealing the unique ways in which artists have been informed by the identity crisis induced by the local-global network. As this project attempts to place Atlanta on the international art map, we anxiously wait to see how Noplaceness will find the terrain that operates between specificity and mobilization. While we celebrate the uniqueness of the local, we also embrace the nomadic spirit that cultural producers maintain in order to remain relevant in a larger context.
In her monthly column, The Fringe, Kristin Juárez writes on the intersections of art and the public sphere. She emphasizes art as a vehicle for visualizing social, environmental, and political issues pertinent to our lives both in Atlanta and abroad. This column traces her exploration of interdisciplinary practices that continue to reflect, foster, or challenge contemporary notions of collective identity.
Check BURNAWAY to read The Fringe on the second Wednesday of every month.