Le Flash sheds light on public art in Atlanta

If you head out to Castleberry Hill the evening of Oct. 24, beware: You may get mobbed. A nomadic band of paparazzi photographers may accost you, detonate flashbulbs in your face, stick microphones at you and then turn suddenly to swarm the next unsuspecting noncelebrity.

If you're fortunate enough to be caught in the melee, then you've stumbled into "Paparazzi Flash Mob," a work of guerilla street theater by artist Trey Burns. The piece is one of more than 40 art projects that comprise Le Flash, an evening of light-based public and performance art that aims to engulf Castleberry Hill all Friday night and leave its impression on the neighborhood for days, and perhaps years, to come.

Cathy Byrd and Stuart Keeler have been organizing and curating the event since this past summer. The pair is so energized, it's hard to get a question in while sitting at the grunge-chic Tilt Coffee Shop on Walker Street. Byrd, the director of the Welch Gallery at GSU, describes the Le Flash ethos between sips of coffee: "A lot of people don't even know what public art is," she says, "and by animating it in a very physical, glowing way, we're introducing people to the idea that public art doesn't have to be just a stationary piece. It can be temporary. It can be about energy and light and life."

Keeler, an artist and SCAD professor, chimes in, citing Atlanta's untapped visual art talent. "There's a hunger to do things," says Keeler. He's hoping Le Flash helps fill that need.

Le Flash was born at Tilt over the summer as Byrd and Keeler sat wondering what they could do to continue enlivening Atlanta's art scene. Drawing on the pair's extensive travel experience, they hit upon the French Nuit Blanche celebration as a potential model. Nuit Blanche (French for "all-nighter") began as an annual citywide art festival in Paris in 2002. It's since spawned numerous copies in places such as Madrid, Tel Aviv and, perhaps most notably, Toronto, where the festival brings in more than a million visitors to the downtown area.

Byrd considers the Atlanta edition a kind of demonstration project. "We're modeling the concept, the possibilities," she says of the entirely self-funded endeavor. "We're thinking of this as a challenge to Atlanta: 'Let's do this again, let's do it bigger.'"

Anyone paying attention to Atlanta's public art scene knows what a significant challenge that is. Public art has had more than its share of tragedies, triumphs and enough drama to satisfy a touring company of Othello. While some individual major public works have flourished, temporary public art festivals have a sketchier history. Some have started and then abruptly stopped, or stopped even before they began despite much fanfare and bombast.

Byrd and Keeler, however, have a track record of pulling together broad coalitions in order to realize multi-venue art events. Within the last year, Byrd spearheaded Re/constructing Atlanta, which examined urban design at a number of outlets throughout the city, while Keeler organized and curated A (new) Genre Landscape, which brought together 18 artists in interventions at 12 of Atlanta's public parks.

Together, Byrd and Keeler hope Le Flash becomes a vehicle for citizens to interact with the Castleberry Hill area in a new way. One of the event's marquee works is Kristina Solomoukha's "Mind the Gap – Fountain" to be installed and displayed at Cleopas R. Johnson Park, situated across Northside Drive and the gallery district. The temporary fountain – a red pickup truck spouting recycled water in an inflatable swimming pool – is designed to activate the park. It's also intended to draw gallery-goers across Northside Drive and deeper into a community that some never experience. Keeler describes this social separation as a typically Atlantan phenomenon: "The park is part of the neighborhood but not part of the neighborhood," he says. "It's an Atlanta thing where things are connected, but not connected."

"Northside Drive is a psychic divide," Byrd adds, "like a river that people don't cross."

It comes as no surprise that exploring neighborhoods is difficult in a city that's been ravaged by racial animosities and brutalized by generations of shortsighted developers with little sense of the importance of public space. But Le Flash's curators and their team of more than 100 volunteers hope that the work around the park, as well as the work filtering into the gallery district, can be an entrée to bridging these cloven neighborhoods.

Artist Gyun Hur, a volunteer assistant and transplant from Korea, credits her months-long involvement in Le Flash with helping her get to know a neighborhood she might never have explored otherwise. "I really wasn't aware of the community itself," she says, "or its relationship with the John Hope community, or its relationship with Spelman or Morehouse. Now I'm a lot more aware."

Keeler and Byrd both want that kind of learning and artistic opportunity to continue. When asked what would have to happen to make that a reality, Keeler responds without hesitation: "The Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce would have to come forward and support it, because that's where the chunks of money are."

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