To the Fairest Shows the Dangers of Lazy Artist Statements

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All photos by John E. Ramspott.

There was a curious disconnect between expectations built up before Sunday’s event and the actual experience of To the Fairest: An Allegorical Adventure Sport at Atlanta Streets Alive. For now, let’s call it a “happening”—since that word’s history of disorganized flower-child revelry nicely suits what I witnessed—but also because it’s the most generous way of describing what most certainly was not an artistic work of substance.

Nancy Friedemann-Sánchez’s Casta Paintings on view at Halsey Institute in Charleston through July16

Of course, this all would have been perfectly fine if the organizers had been more careful in accurately managing expectations. The experience was pleasant, if treated purely as a light weekend diversion.

The happening’s leader was Evan Fillon, a local punk rocker and aspiring actor/playwright, who arrived onsite wearing the black and white stripes of a referee outfit, his red hair tossed about wildly up top and pulled into a small ponytail behind. His crew included a big cardboard robot, complete with spray-on-silver pincers and buzz saw, and a handful of conspirators wearing everything from a red evening dress to striped athletic shorts, a ballerina’s tutu, and frizzy rainbow-colored wigs.

It was just one of several attractions at Atlanta Streets Alive, a festival that celebrates the urban environment by closing specific city streets for the enjoyment of pedestrians and bicyclists. To the Fairest convened twice that afternoon, at 3:00 and 5:00, at the intersection of Washita and North Highland avenues in Inman Park.

Nancy Friedemann-Sánchez’s Casta Paintings on view at Halsey Institute in Charleston through July16

Before I continue describing the event, try clearing your mind for a minute and imagining the scene described by the artist statement. This was emailed to the press and posted on the Streets Alive website in early May:

“TO THE FAIREST: An Allegorical Adventure Sport

“WonderRoot has teamed up with performance artist/rockstar Evan ‘Snake the Body’ Fillon to create an interactive performance spectacle for the Atlanta Streets Alive festival on May 20th 2012.
 Mr. Fillon has worked with a diverse cast of artists from many disciplines to create an allegorical anarcho-poetic adventure sport called ‘καλλίστῃ’ (pronounced: kallistēi) or, ‘To the Fairest’…a reference to the golden apple of Eris and the mythological episode that led to the Trojan War.
 The performance invites festival-goers to either join a team and play ball with the artists or cheer from the sidelines as spectators of the chaotic ballgame.
 The game resembles a fusion of kickball, dodgeball, competitive dance, basketball, and trivia. The artists have devised a fixed set of rules as well as a process for changing, re-interpreting, and flat-out breaking said rules. The game will be refereed by Evan Fillon, frontman of the local sarcadelic punk band The Dandyls.”

How accurately does the statement match what actually went down on Sunday? Does it sufficiently prepare the art-going public to understand and appreciate WonderRoot’s contribution to the street festival? Was it necessary to include the pronunciation for the ancient Greek “καλλίστῃ” and other pretentious factoids?

Although the description “allegorical adventure sport” suggests some rich possibilities for performance, you could easily capture the action by saying “an ironic game of kickball with sweaty strangers in costumes gesticulating and loudly yelling non sequiturs.” I noticed nothing related to the Trojan War or the mythic Judgment of Paris mentioned in the statement above. On the whole, the event had nothing to say: no narrative and no concepts, other than a goofy, vaguely circus-esque atmosphere.

During an email exchange with another BURNAWAY writer last week, the director’s comments suggested that some last-minute changes might have altered the group’s creative course. “As for the mythological idea, that played in a lot more during our early sessions, talking about conflict and chaos, and heavy stuff like peace on earth and political harmony,” wrote Evan Fillon. “Honestly, though, trying to tell a story always seemed to come out really cheesy, so we’ve maintained hints and allusions to the Judgment of Paris story, but those are just little nuggets to be discovered by whoever might recognize them.”

Whatever their reasons, the group’s efforts resulted in a nonperformance: a somewhat entertaining, somewhat annoying occasion stripped bare of artistic content altogether. It was an unflattering absence of meaning, amplified by the low-budget and amateurish quality exuded by ragtag costumes and props.

Below I’ve rewritten the artist statement to illustrate what I mean. Perhaps this presents a more accurate, less pretentious description of Sunday’s activity:

“Creative Kickball with WonderRoot

“Please join WonderRoot for a friendly game of free-style, free-form kickball organized by Evan Fillon, also known as the frontman of the local band The Dandyls. Fillon has worked with an informal group of friends to develop an alternate version of the game. Like regular kickball, it retains the baseball-diamond shape and basic structure for scoring points by running bases and throwing the ball to tag someone out. But there’s a twist: the referee and players are allowed to deviate from the rules on a whim. Participants can insert a theatrical song and dance in place of kicking the ball—and pretty much anything else as long as it’s in the spirit of fun. Not sure how to play? Just look to your fellow contestants for a cue.”

I should clarify that I appreciate the difficulty of organizing public art in uncertain conditions. The exact location for To the Fairest wasn’t known until the week before the event, and even then, it was tucked away at least a mile south of the festival’s center. Several members of the public joined the game—a genuine success for an event intended to be interactive—although results could have been better.

The location also created tight boundaries; the game required more space than was available, blocking the intersection and spilling onto all four street corners. There was nowhere for curious spectators to comfortably line up, observe while gathering courage to join in, or speak with someone to learn more. The space discouraged engagement as newcomers had only two choices: stop now and observe from a weird angle, or keep walking and disruptively forge right through the middle of the action.

There’s a tendency for artists to overcompensate for lack of resources by adopting a reality-curbing bravado. I’ve seen this attitude from young local groups such as Dodekapus, Back Pockets, Living Walls, and Saïah with varying degrees of success. A self-hypnotizing propaganda takes over, hoping that if you repeat how “amazing!” or “insane!” an event is going to be, somehow it will come true.

I don’t fault the organizers of To the Fairest for forces beyond their control, and I place great value on creative experimentation, even when it fails. But there comes a time when everyone needs some clarity. Come on: get real.

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