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Cover Story - The Return of Flux Night

After a one-year hiatus, the one-night-only public art event returns with a new curator in a new neighborhood

EDITOR'S NOTE: Due to inclement weather, Flux Night has been postponed until Nov. 7.

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Drive down Edgewood Avenue on a Saturday night and you'll feel the pulse of Atlanta. There are hipsters and urban sophisticates, homeless people and college kids. Natives who've been around long enough to witness the neighborhood's plight and observe its dramatic changes merge on the street with new Atlantans. Shift a block over to Auburn Avenue and the scene instantly morphs. There is a quiet intensity to the stretch where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was born. It mingles with a sense of oppression that snakes between the neighborhood's row houses.

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The Old Fourth Ward is full of promises unrealized and shining possibility. It has a spirit that speaks and spoke directly to Nato Thompson, curator of Flux Night 2015.

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"We'd been looking at sites all day long and then we drove through Old Fourth Ward on the way to the airport. I said, 'That's the site. That's where we gotta do it,'" says Thompson, chief curator for Creative Time, a New York-based public art organization.

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When Flux Night debuted in 2010, it was clear the city was witnessing something special. A one-night exhibition of public art held in Castleberry Hill, Flux combined contemporary art installations with a party-like setting. Flux Night evolved out of the 2008-09 Le Flash events, which centered on elaborate light-based work.

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No matter the year, Flux always hums with creative energy. At Flux Night you might have found yourself standing in front of a man cracking a brightly colored whip at no one in particular, or encountering a young woman in a bonnet reading bedtime stories. You could have seen a horse-drawn piano wheeling its way through the streets or ended up gazing at spectacular, audience-controlled light installations. At once creative and chaotic, Flux Night has fluctuated between brilliance and confusion, thought-provoking work and head-scratching projects.

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The size of the event (attendance grew from 5,000 in 2010 to an estimated 20,000 in 2013) and quality of the art has brought both praise and criticism from the public and Castleberry Hill residents. In 2014, Flux Projects, the organization that presents Flux Night, announced it would take a one-year hiatus from both the event and its ongoing programming to put more thought and time into its presentations. Flux Night returns Oct. 3 with a new approach in a new neighborhood. It also has a big name associated with it this year in Thompson.

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Flux Projects Executive Director Anne Dennington says the organization was intent on having one person curate the entire event to create one vision for attendees to experience. Thompson is known for curating projects that speak to social issues. He's given Flux Night 2015 the theme Dream, inspired by the Old Fourth Ward. He speaks with a cool California rhythm and often sounds as if he’s on the verge of laughter, as he talks about gentrification, race relations, and how the American dream has evolved and devolved over the past year and a half. Thompson's vision for Flux Night 2015 is both timely and historic and taps into America's political climate while paying homage to the culture and spirit that was cultivated in Atlanta's Old Fourth Ward.

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Flux Night has become the backbone of Flux Projects, though Dennington says she originally thought the one-night event would run its course and the ongoing, individual projects Flux produces would be the center of the organization.

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"But the more we did Flux Night, the more important it's become," she says. "There's such value in this city to having people come out and see how many people are there to see contemporary artwork and how invested in exploring it they are. And there's also value in seeing how huge and diverse the crowd is."

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Flux Night has fed Atlanta's growing appetite for public art-oriented events. Dennington says Flux Projects has consistently set the standard for a bold, relevant, and diverse public art scene in Atlanta.

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"Flux Projects as an organization has raised the bar for what's being presented in Atlanta in the public realm," Dennington says. "I think we've been doing that by not only bringing in artists from other markets but offering opportunities to our local artists as well."

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Flux Night's swift rise in popularity is a testament to its ability to encourage engagement. "The magic that happens is that our community shows up and participates," she says. "So I think we did a lot, yes, but had Atlanta not stepped up, too, it wouldn't still be here."

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In addition to a new location, this year Flux Night also boasts a larger budget of $300,000, up from its original budget of $110,000. The event's funding has shifted from largely relying on Flux Projects founder, Louis Corrigan, to including contributions from the city's Office of Cultural Affairs, the Fulton County Arts Council, the Georgia Council for the Arts, and various sponsorships.

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Over the years, Flux Night has captured the imagination of some and frustrated others. Castleberry Hill residents have complained about the noise and the crowds. When it was announced that the event was taking a year off, some people wondered if the neighborhood had anything to do with the decision.

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"You have two kinds of people in Castleberry," says Josh Calvin, chair of the Arts and Art Stroll for the Castleberry Hill Neighborhood Association. "I'm not saying people don't get along or anything, but you have the people that have lived here for a long time and are used to everything, and people that have just heard about it in the past few years. They love living in town but they don't realize what living Downtown means sometimes."

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Calvin, a 10-year Castleberry Hill resident who also owns the sushi and burger bar Bottle Rocket, says that some of the people who were worried about their neighborhood getting trashed were the same ones praising Flux's pick-up team the following morning.

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"Once everyone sees what's going on and understands it, they don't have a problem with it," he says.

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Calvin says that Flux increased traffic for local businesses not only the night of the event but throughout the year. He was sad to see Flux leave the neighborhood this year and says he hopes it returns, sentiments Dennington shares. She brushes aside the idea that neighborhood naysayers had anything to do with Flux's yearlong hiatus.

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"We had examples of events that crumbled under their success and we're still a small organization," she says. "We needed to look at fundraising and future funding and our branding."

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"Flux Night is in Old Fourth Ward because that's where Nato Thompson chose," Dennington says. "We were headed back to do it in Castleberry even though we knew it would be a challenging year getting people over there with the stadium construction and the Spring Street Bridge, but Nato fell in love with the Old Fourth Ward. When he discovered all that was there, he was like, 'This is it, this is the show.'"

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In an eloquent, fiery essay, "Perhaps Words Fail Us" posted to Flux Projects' website, Thompson explains that Dream isn't just a convenient theme pulled from MLK's oft-cited speech.

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"To quote Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., 'Only in the darkness, can you see the stars,'" writes Thompson, who also wrote the 2012 book Seeing Power: Socially Engaged Art in the Age of Cultural Production. "Yes, this is an art show about dreams, but you have to, at first, appreciate the nightmare."

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He goes on to explore the depths of the American nightmare, listing the names of victims of police brutality — fathers, sisters, brothers, mothers, and sons — including Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Freddie Gray. The nightmare is an 18-year-old black boy who was gunned down and left in the street for four hours. It's a 15-year-old bikini-clad black girl who was terrorized by an armed policeman at neighborhood pool party. It's nine black worshippers massacred by a 21-year-old white supremacist in a Charleston church.

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"One could go on," Thompson writes. "The list sure does."

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It's been a heavy year in America. If you're black, there's a good chance you've never felt blacker than you have during the past 12 months. If you're American, there's a good chance you're thinking about race and race relations in way that you haven't before.

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"America has a particular history with race," Thompson says. "People — aka white people — don't deal with race on a very everyday level. They tend to think of it as a problem or a downer instead of as a reality that's beautiful and poetic and a struggle that we all have to collectively go through. Cities benefit from thinking through it together."

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And that's really what Flux Night 2015: Dream is all about: thinking and dreaming together. Facing the nightmare to get to the fantasy.

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"I like art that's relevant or art that touches on things that matter in our lives," Thompson says. "It makes better art. I can't read a book that's about nothing. Having something to say about the world is mutual to art."

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Thompson has utilized the talents of a diverse group of local, national, and international artists to interpret the dream. Yoko Ono will present "Imagine Peace Maps," a participatory work that will encourage attendees to place an "Imagine Peace" stamp on a large-scale map where they want to see peace.

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"OJTL FM" by Otabenga Jones and Associates will feature a temporary outdoor radio station broadcasting live from the back of a pink 1959 Cadillac as a tribute to Atlanta's WERD Radio, the first black-owned station. Atlanta-based artist Stephon Ferguson will invoke the spirit of Martin Luther King Jr. as he delivers renditions of the civil rights icon's famous speeches near Ebenezer Baptist Church. (He says King's spirit inhabits his body when he performs.)

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? ? Image ?

? ? Micah Stansell? ? ? BUILDING BLOCKS: Micah and Whitney Stansell’s “Between You and Me” at Flux Night 2010.? ? ?
? ? Image ?

? ? Adam Davila? ? ? Nicole Livieratos' "Turn the Page" at Flux Night 2012? ? ??
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Thompson suggests starting the night on Auburn at Ebenezer Baptist Church. The installations on Auburn, he says, will evoke more serious emotions while the work on Edgewood, much like an average night, will offer a more rowdy atmosphere.

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At previous Flux Nights it was sometimes hard to detect an overall theme, as the installations didn't necessarily derive from one source of inspiration. Some attendees complained the event was confusing, even unorganized.

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"My principal criticism is that it was jumbled and lacked cohesiveness — not in the sense of whether one work was connected to another visually or thematically, but rather that, due to logistics, it didn't even seem like an event with art as its focus," art critic Andrew Alexander wrote of Flux Night 2013 for ArtsATL. "It felt like a pleasant street fair. A combination of things may have contributed to this: the complicated layout and topography of that neighborhood, the dispersal of works, the tacked-on elements, and non-Flux-curated things like food vendors, galleries and body painting."

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This year's Flux, however, aims for cohesiveness. Dennington says the site-specific location is one of things she's most excited about this year. Each artist was required to visit and draw direct inspiration from the neighborhood.

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"This combination of projects coming together will have a certain resonance in this location that they would not have anywhere else in the world," she says. "It's a theme that connects that neighborhood in which it's happening to the history of Atlanta, and ties that to greater national and global concerns. I love how it connects to the city."

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One of the most notable exhibitions at Flux Night will be renowned Atlanta-based photographer Sheila Pree Bright's "1960Now: Atlanta, Baltimore, Ferguson & Washington DC," which offers a firsthand glimpse into the Black Lives Matter Movement. The exhibit was recently installed at MOCA GA.

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Thompson says he found the heated debate between Black Lives Matter activists and civil rights elders about the direction of the new movement fascinating. He commissioned Bright to trail activists from city to city for one year.

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"My work shows faces of young visionaries in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement," Bright says of the stark black-and-white images in her poignant series. "Protest images show intense moments of passion and dignity. Media used language describing black males as thugs, whereas I took images of black males tearing up."  

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"Black Lives Matter is absolutely the hopeful end of the spectrum and then on the other end is just this nightmarish series of tragedy across the American landscape that just doesn't seem to stop," Thompson says. "I think that it seems like the perfect time to do this show. I didn't anticipate how insane this year would be. Who could?"

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? ? Image ?

? ? Adam Davila? ? ? Krewe of the Grateful Gluttons' "Jazz Funeral for Snake Nation" at Flux Night 2012? ? ?
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? ? Meghan Davis/CL File? ? ? gloATL performs "Act of Devotion" at Flux Night 2012? ? ??
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Flux Night will deal with some heavy topics and real issues. Thompson suggests people relax and have a good time while taking the opportunity to think about the world.

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"The best aspect of Flux Night is it really shows what can be done with an unused and underused urban space," Calvin says. "It's a really creative use of space that a lot of people didn't think was possible here. The worst thing would be for a major metropolis like Atlanta to not support it. I'd hate for the city of Atlanta to not be able to keep something that great."

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Thompson agrees, particularly given the relevancy of Flux Night 2015, and its potential place in the future historical landscape. We look at art to remember history, to draw a narrative of the times, and this is Atlanta's chance to make a mark in that respect.

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"A lot of cities can't get their head around what public art is and what the possibilities are," he says. "We should spend money on the arts. Not the kind of art that's just for rich people, but all art, for everyday people. It's better like that."



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