2014 Living Walls Conference celebrates five years of dialogue

Organization looks to celebrate the city’s public art collaborations

This year’s Living Walls, the City Speaks conference is having not just an anniversary, but also a celebration.

The 2014 conference marks five years of work raising the profile of public art around the city. This is an anniversary year for some collaborators, too, including Dashboard Co-Op and the Goat Farm Arts Center. In those five years, Living Walls has sponsored the public work of 96 artists around the city. This year, 18 more were invited and have been painting since Aug. 4.

The Living Walls conference launched in 2010 as the idea of two people, co-founders Mónica Campana and Blacki Li Rudi Migliozzi, and the major support of one group, arts collective and Downtown gallery Eyedrum. That first year the conference operated as a kind of foster program, with local artists such as Jason Kofke, Michi Meko, and the Paper Twins showing the invited artists around the city.

Campana now runs Living Walls as its executive director, and it has grown from two staffers to more than 20 (though even the core team members work as unpaid volunteers). The annual budget has quintupled, from $20,000 to $100,000, even as its funding remains tied wholly to private donations. “People want something like Living Walls to be happening,” Campana told Creative Loafing that first year. “It’s exciting and important. That’s why they help.”

Campana says there have to be more than 80 conference volunteers providing food and additional help for visiting artists while they’re working. The Atlanta Film Festival chipped in this year with a projector. “It is really a community project, there’s a ton of people that are involved in different areas,” Campana says. “I don’t even know absolutely everyone who is doing something. It’s involving so many people right now.”

This isn’t so much growth as growing up.

“It’s funny to see it over five years, the growth and the people in Living Walls, and to see how they’ve kind of matured and understand what they’re doing now and to see how each person has gone from early 20s, having no idea how to do anything like this — to mid-to-late 20s, and it’s a piece of cake now,” says Mark DiNatale, director of operations at the Goat Farm. “The walls have been getting bigger and better.”

Living Walls did not get people talking public art and urbanism five years ago, but it did further formalize the discussions, giving people another way to gather and talk. DiNatale says this helped create a feedback loop, increasing the involvement and interests of other arts.

“The fact of the matter is, whether they like it or not, Living Walls is an institution,” says Eyedrum Executive Director Priscilla Smith.

Smith remembers the initial pitch for the conference, in early 2010, when Campana and Migliozzi came to Eyedrum. What stuck out to her then was the chance for conversation (Smith and Migliozzi had actually already met at another set of PechaKucha-style talks). Each Living Walls conference since has made a point to incorporate lecture series and artist talks, among other activities.

Sometimes, that dialogue has been heated. In the fall of 2012, a Living Walls mural by the French artist Pierre Roti sparked controversy in the Pittsburgh neighborhood. Some residents found its imagery “demonic.” Living Walls thought the mural was installed properly. Later, angry residents painted it over without permission.

Campana says moments like those have been instructive. While “you will never see a Living Walls mural of kids of different races holding hands with a rainbow in the background,” she says that artists will now introduce themselves to the neighborhoods where they intend to work. This kind of conversation is important, too.

This year’s main event, a co-presentation with the Goat Farm, will introduce three-dimensional works, including installations, as a logical extension of the tactical urbanism mission that is baked into Living Walls’ founding. Murals are just one method of change. “I think we are exploring different kinds of public intervention,” Campana says.

One of the main event’s participating artists is Bayeté Ross Smith — who, via donations from the community, built a tower of boom boxes.

“We really thought it would be interesting to have this two-dimensional artwork out in the city, and then the main event at the end kind of brings it to life,” DiNatale says. “We’ve got the works off the wall this year, now hopefully we can get them off the wall and into the street down the road.”

It may be a generational thing, but DiNatale says that newer organizations, perhaps in the last decade or so, are less centralized and more collaborative. The financial environment in post-Great Recession Atlanta often requires that kind of partnership.

Smith remembers the summer before the first Living Walls conference, when she helped organize the initiative’s first mural in southwest Atlanta. The project — Doodles’ mural of a Poseidon on his side, with chest hair that looks like wavelets — was a model of collaboration, with help from Eyedrum, the Beltline, and the owner of the warehouse (near the corner of Ralph David Abernathy Boulevard and White Street) who donated a wall.

That mural is still in pretty good shape today, Smith says. Adding, “And it’s still speaking pretty strongly.”