lauri stallings, Aura no. 2, Supple Means of Connection  exhibition,High Museum of Art,  2019. wood, gelatin, sunlight, L.E.D. colored floodlights, vinyl. photo courtesy of glo @2019.

lauri stallings

 

with Meredith Sims

lauri stallings, I came to explore the sun, of something more permanent, the moves are maps, 2020 Lauri Stallings' first ever film work, for Meridian Herald, in partnership with Atlanta Watershed Alliance, Proctor Creek Greenway, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, and HJacobs Creative, starring Ashley Ianna Daye, Christina Hiroko Kelly, Mechelle Tunstall. 

lauri stallings' art takes social sculpture to the deep south, connection fed by a choreography toolbox and a compassionate inquiry into people and place. Trained as a classical ballet dancer, stallings switched focus in 2009 with the founding of gloATL, a Southern women’s artist-led group. Transcending the customary understanding of dance to one of movement as a framework for social engagement, protest and collaboration, stallings typically eschews traditional art venues, most recently with ‘March on Variations’, a multi-faceted project traversing cities and towns across the Deep South. Her work is both intimate and expansive and, despite its often gentle embrace, grounded in a desire for social justice.

It was such a pleasure to correspond with stallings about her important work.

Meredith Sims: You moved from the world of ballet to found glo. Dance is a universal expression, which makes it accessible, and yet some disciplines, like ballet, actually demand a rigor and perfection that belie the beauty or flow of the performance and can limit accessibility. What led you to ballet and at what point did you realize that it was not going to support the social inquiry and change that you wanted to effect through your art?

 

lauri stallings: When the local ballet school in our community offered free dance classes to my older brother, sister, and me, it solved a big problem for our young hippy parents: free babysitting. Early on, I was driven to ballet class, and less aware of the geographic barriers my family crossed each time we went to the studios. Then the southeast side of town was zoned with public transportation, and everything changed. I loved the freedom, and time alone the bus ride offered; at some point I realized that when the bus crossed the train tracks, I was leaving one world--the poor, black, low-income housing with wired fences--to another: the rich, white, picket fences. That journey became as much the visceral dance as the ballet taught in the studio. Consequently, the many, many train tracks my 11-year socially engaged art practice has confronted and traversed have at some intentional moment confronted systems--discriminatory policies and racism--but also the power of infrastructure itself to segregate. (About 15 years ago my family’s neighborhood was finally paved!) If performativity’s true meaning is an action, such as a promise, then I think ballet helped me build not so much a physical language but an emotional Intelligence, and with that, I chose to attempt to engage the complexity of emotions in a very particular way that regular people, like me and my people, go through every day. There are different ways for individuals to take over space, to command space.

lauri stallings, I came to explore the sun, of something more permanent, the moves are maps, 2020 Lauri Stallings' first ever film work, for Meridian Herald, in partnership with Atlanta Watershed Alliance, Proctor Creek Greenway, Chattahoochee Riverkeeper, and HJacobs Creative, starring Ashley Ianna Daye, Christina Hiroko Kelly, Mechelle Tunstall. 

MS: Aside from the obvious element of movement, are there aspects of your experience with ballet, or the structure of ballet, that inform your current work? Either as a seen or unseen element or even as a rejection of that art form?

 

ls: What we pay attention to grows. Ballet taught me to pay attention. And, we become what we practice. I learned this through studying ballet, and joy. In his Leadership Dojos, Richard Strozzi-Heckler shares, “300 repetitions produce body memory…3,000 repetitions creates embodiment.” Ancestry is the art of practicing. I come from a large forest of organic matter, trees, tribes, and memories, each of which built fires and kept smokeholes open. In pure form, ballet is math, architecture, so I think a lot about that stuff, and both sides of the brain are readily exhausted. Ballet opened metabolic equality between my arms and legs. Arguably, the most important thing i learned from ballet was to ban all mirrors.

 

Rather than operating from a place of rejection, glo distributes from a place of acceptance, while shifting the understanding of dance from traditional studio practice to a more conceptual base of transforming the social environment. Social sculpture builds emotional Intelligence, engages the complexity of emotions in us in a way that many other things are incapable of doing.

lauri stallings,The Traveling Show 2013,  is an ongoing nomadic movement and socially engaged art project in rural towns in the Deep South. glo launched The Traveling Show in 2013

with a SEED grant from the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation.  Since 2013, the project has engaged 63 rural southern towns, and 3 art sites in 9 counties,  across 20,000 miles,

to offer free and public art to more than 71,058 southerners.

MS: You founded glo as a resource for social transformation and a response to social, economic and spiritual needs. As a Southern artist speaking to a global community, what would you say are the unique spiritual needs of Southern heritage? What part of your work speaks to this?

 

ls: Southern is central and fundamental to everything America. I think most people who read about “south” draw meaning from a geographical, racial, and historical point of view. It’s something much more unrestricted, on its own, free-spirited, and open, than any of those. Over the past few weeks, I've been studying Octavia Butler's profound work, and her world in the future, where queers, and others, thrive, and shame is resolved. “feel your way. find a way back to heal. decide what you can let go; show all the parts--all the uglies, all the intensities--of the gathering. this part's crucial. i am thinking about america right now, and sending you strength and love, that this country may know beauty, and let discover the humanity of every body, and its love for herself. god made you."  

lauri stallings, SEARCH ENGINE, Supple Means of Connection High Museum of Art 2019  A woman-made grassy hillside that grows over time for contemplation, and as an artists' SEARCH ENGINE in to the body's motion as the most humane expression of art. Stallings grew and watered Georgia native Zoysia grass every day for 7-weeks during her High Museum of Art residency.

MS: Do these times require a stronger response? Art as a provocateur? Or does art, and your art in particular, simply need to continue its own path, as an engagement where, hopefully, the capacity of the viewer both to understand and to cope, is expanded?

 

ls: becoming-with, not becoming, is the name of the game. I think in this moment there is a lot to mine in terms of researching frequencies that widen the narrow view of southern people, whose traditions have been left out of the archive. March on Variations! is one such performative structure I offer as a bigger flow & time, of life. Something the glo platform does very well is hold contradictions. Although our minds may lag, our bodies are clear of such inconsistencies; our bodies know things that our minds don’t - a living archive belonging to others, and outKasts, and the trees, where my ancestors learned how to listen; where my ancestors are heard.  The more room we leave for redemption, the better we are. This path is not new; the magic of being-consciousness, that cosmic reality, is. what history is heard here? is inspired by the poems of poet and cultural theorist Fred Moten. I love this direct posturing to who can lay claim to the new south? Even before the pan(demic), real southern time often included periods of silence, reflection, growth, space, self-forgiveness, processing with loved ones, rest, and responsibility. real southern time has always been slower.

 

We must be researchers and gatherers from now on.

glo, a documentary, The Palette Group,  2018-19 Palette traveled with glo from summer through winter 2018, documenting their social performance at The Goat Farm, 8Arm, Hudgens Center,

Atlanta Symphony Hall, Historic Grant Park, and a Historic Rosenwald School.  

MS: glo is an all woman collective, what do you consider women are uniquely poised to reveal or illuminate?

 

ls: glo is SHE THEY Y’ALL.  Arguably, and poetically, an all “other” platform. Angela Davis states, “racial, economic and gender justice are inextricably connected. One is not possible without the others.” We need to invest in radical feminism, that’s one part of it. But I think there are pieces that are much more about the sensitivity that manifests out of listening, and as bell hooks says, the primacy of love, again and again. I’m talking about life actions, AND survival rituals. When you talk about feminist leadership, we need to build our platforming from that place, from what we can do out of compassion, kindness, and love, for each other, as generators, advocates, and as regular folk of our community. It's about critical listening. And we need to disconnect from the idea of feminism’s having a vagina. This is radical feminism, the one Angela, and Audre, and Sonia, and Gloria, and bell, my momma Maggie, and glo, are still talking about.  We’ve had a century of white man leadership, now it's time for black folk, women, trans. Humanity--that’s where art and organizing can begin; then, identity politics fall away. That is important for Atlanta. We need to look at all this work as pieces of a living organism. That’s in glo’s mission. Choreography as a toolbox for abundance, and the lack thereof, is fundamental to our ability to be effective.

 

What does it mean to confront something when you don't know what it is? You honor it, because stories are important. My ancestors came from the springs of the earth with the voice of people embodying the precise clumsiness of life. That’s why precise storytelling is vital. For us to heal. Marginalized folk act on this. This is one of my favorite quotes from Samuel Delany: “Is it the easy stories that make us who we are?” I think the most important part of being a southern rural white woman artist who grew up poor in a low-income, black neighborhood has been the challenge of producing something beyond my immediate ability to verbally communicate. At no point has the path been without effort. What I want glo to do best is demonstrate the importance of moving laterally between fields to disrupt the circulation of identity, ideas, and ideals. In order to do that effectively, and poetically, I believe that an emotive art language is needed to make sense of our existence and the state of the good green earth today. The body is a cosmic and relational site. This is why I am devoted to a social choreography discipline.

 

As the body disappears from the equation, so does our ability to empathize. The simple fact of a body in front of you. There’s nothing like it. This is why this moment is so critical, and painful, and scary. Our bodies are witnesses. But COVID has hijacked our ability to experience each other. I think artists, and other marginalized folk, I think we are uniquely equipped. We’ve constantly had to make up survival strategies. Some are unique to those of us who’ve been targets; you name it, my work, and sometimes glo, has sparked death threats, intimidation, fear tactics. The South, more than any other region, is wild and complicated.  

 

I think the work of Suzanne Lacy says it best with her pioneering socially engaged art, by neither denying nor collapsing the gaps, in time and space, spanned by her practice, but to present what’s in-between, the interstices— leave it open for what’s to come.

lauri stallings + glo, DRIFTING IN DAYLIGHT: And All Directions I Come To You, 2015

lauri stallings + glo, DRIFTING IN DAYLIGHT: And All Directions I Come To You, 2015

In all aspects of her work, Atlanta artist lauri stallings centers the notion of the deep South as a formal exercise--one defined by collective body, creative agency, and theory synthesis. A fifth generation southern woman, Stallings grew up poor in low-income housing on the Southeast side. She has exhibited for Creative Time, Center for Civil and Human Rights, and Atlanta Contemporary. An Artadia awardee, MOCA GA Fellow, and Hudgens Prize recipient, Stallings was awarded the Lorenzo Il Magnifico at the XII Florence Biennale in 2019. She is the first choreographer as artist-in-residence at the High Museum of Art.

www.lauristallings.org   

gloatl.org

Meredith Sims, a freelance writer originally from Perth, Australia, now resides in Atlanta, Georgia.