Finding Vanished Atlanta: a community memory web
The Shelter show at Eyedrum (ATL) in January 2005 asked participating artists to consider the idea of temporary shelter, particularly as it related to travel and homelessness. I decided to return to the method and imagery of Finding Indra's Net and apply it to collective memories of the city of Atlanta. At the beginning of the week the installation was to go up, I sent out the following email to the local Arts listserv, to my colleagues at school, and to other friends:
Response was amazing! in the space of five days, I received hundreds of emails filled with multi-layered recollections of the city, what it had been, and how it had changed.
[participants' instructions, January-February 2005, Small Gallery, Eyedrum Art and Music Gallery, Atlanta, GA]
“Installation” has become an art world catch-all, but to me it means the opportunity to create situations whose finished form and meaning depend on community participation. Here, both the specific list of about 700 vanished Atlanta sites from living memory and the final web of the remembered city depend on widely shared work of recollection. This project could no more be a solo creation than the city itself.
I have used construction materials (plastic-tipped nails & mason’s twine), but I have not built a structure for Shelter. Instead, I have tried to invoke the transience of the city as a whole, and the experience of living in several cities at once: there is the surface city of things-as-they-are, and then there are the cities of things-as-they-have-been. If you live in one place for long enough, these cities become densely layered. For example, long-term Atlantans in their 50’s and 60’s seem to be able to envision the rubble currently stretching along Piedmont from Lindbergh to Sidney Marcus as: Lindbergh Plaza , Broadview Plaza , the site of the Great Southeast Music Hall , an amusement park, and a lake. Within each of these layers are countless details: the clock repair shop, the horsie rides, the mural outside the art store, the photo booth, the buckets of beer, the ferris wheel, and the cable for sliding into the lake.
Proponents of growth-is-good economics applaud Atlanta for its booming expansion, and its ability to leave other, pokier Southern cities in the dust. But the hundreds of emails in five days that greeted my call for a roster of vanished Atlanta say residents are not uniformly thrilled with their bigger, sleeker, faster, more efficient hometown. Nostalgia is a natural human response to relentless change, but I don’t think the enthusiasm behind Finding Vanished Atlanta can be dismissed as pure misty-eyed hindsight. Qualitatively, many of the places which have disappeared are different from those which have replaced them. In many cases, lost bars, hotels, drug stores and bookstores bore the names of local personalities, known and appreciated by their clientele: Jim White’s on the Half Shell, Deacon Burton’s Restaurant, Jim Salle’s Records, Suzie’s Hard Times Café. Today’s Starbucks, Houstons and Borders have nothing intrinsically to do with Atlanta : they are functional in an anonymous, alocal way.
Finding Vanished Atlanta in its present state seems like the prototype of a much larger project whose goal would be to draw from the memories of a truly wide-ranging sample of the city’s neighborhoods, communities, and generational groups. But for now, heartfelt thanks to all of you for the city we’ve made.