The Wendy’s went up in flames quickly. It was June 13, 2020, and the fast food restaurant on Atlanta’s Southside that had a day before been the site of Rayshard Brooks’s killing at the hands of a white police officer was now engulfed in a massive blaze. Demonstrations soon spread throughout the city and police mobilized to make numerous arrests. News networks and social media lit up with still images and videos of the turmoil. In response, an exasperated Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms held a press conference in which she castigated “those who would burn this city down.”
This all took place a few weeks after George Floyd was killed by a white police officer in Minneapolis.
The hysteric media and political response surrounding these events was matched only by the jingoistic coverage following Georgia “turning blue” in the 2020 presidential election and January 2021 Senate runoffs. Talking heads turned the page on the summer’s strife and claimed that through these elections, Metro Atlanta’s diverse, liberal-leaning population had saved the country from an increasingly callous and conspiratorial GOP. But, we have to ask, might the city that “saved” America need some form of saving itself?
Activists on the ground see a less sensational picture of Atlanta. Local groups such as Sol Underground and La Choloteca seek to reimagine the city from the bottom up by working to foster creative expression, community building, and political change. The two organizations are part of a growing movement in the city and throughout the South to yoke art and activism in order to address such issues as racial injustice, police brutality, income inequality, housing insecurity, immigration precarity, and health disparities. Sol, for which I have volunteered, offers opportunities to artists of color and organizes mutual aid efforts for the city’s unhoused and impoverished residents, while La Choloteca hosts queer Latinx cultural events and stages markets for local artists and artisans.
These cooperatives are grassroots through and through. Their efforts remind me of the words of late cultural theorist Lauren Berlant, who writes in Cruel Optimism that “the return of DIY practices . . . emerges from the hope that changing the white noise of politics into something alive right now can magnetize people to induce images of the good life amidst the exhausting pragmatics of the ordinary’s ‘new normal.’” Both groups operate in the spaces and for the subjects left behind by mainstream cultural and political institutions. In so doing, they seek to reclaim the city by promoting a civic approach to aesthetics. These cooperatives do not prioritize visual appeal as much as existential restoration; beauty equates to making life better for those with social or economic needs.
It’s a scorching day in early summer, and I’m volunteering at the nondescript building housing Sol Underground on Atlanta’s Westside when a woman comes in looking for an outfit for a job interview. She says she’s recently gotten back on her feet and needs the job. “What should I wear, sweetie?” she asks. We walk over to the side of the building filled with racks, bins, and boxes of clothes. “You can’t go wrong with pinstripe,” I say matter-of-factly. “Yes the hell you can! Let me get in there,” she responds. Dethroned as her stylist, I watch her pull out several articles of clothing and model each one for me. “I got that Naomi body,” she declares. We both laugh. She eventually settles on a pair of black trousers and a white blouse. I tell her how nice the outfit looks, and we hug goodbye.
Founded in 2017 as Saint Sol Art Collective and run by organizers known only by pseudonyms, the group has as one of its defining “rules” that everything must begin in conversation with those involved. Whether helping someone pick out clothes for an interview, spotlighting the work of local artists of color, or helping unhoused residents acquire tents or shelter, this interactive, collaborative ethos runs through the group’s activities and defines its approach to both activism and art.
This spirit is evident at Sol’s building. In a few short years, the collective’s Westside location has become a key site for the largely lower-income Black neighborhood. It has racks of clothes, refrigerators full of food and drinks, shelves of medicine and hygiene products, and cases of everyday necessities. It is essentially a free store. Every Wednesday the group hosts an open dinner for volunteers and the community. Anyone can come and go as they please, take what they need, and sit and chat with the people who keep it all running. The building is also available as an exhibition space for art shows, and it is from here that the group offers a residency for Black artists engaged with activism. Sol even hosts communal “work parties” to renovate and beautify the property; as one volunteer, Sunshine, put it, the goal is to create a space that is both “materially beneficial and aesthetically pleasing.”
In addition to operating out of its Westside building, Sol works throughout the city. On Tuesday and Friday nights volunteers set up in downtown Atlanta and give away food, clothes, and supplies. In May the group acquired a bus for taking its activities to other neighborhoods. Recently, volunteers partnered with the Atlanta Homeless Union to work with and advocate for the city’s unhoused residents. These events and actions are regularly promoted on social media, where they appear along with information about local and national affairs. The group’s online shop sells stickers, posters, totes, and other items designed by local artists. The combination of a brick-and-mortar space, mobile operations, and an online presence allows the group to reach and organize—“magnetize,” as Berlant put it—a heterogeneous mix of citizens and communities for their shared benefit.
In promoting mutuality, Sol acts as an incubator for what philosophers Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have called the “multitude,” a worldwide form of resistant sociality. The goal, then, is not simply to assist those left behind by neoliberal governance, but to develop a model of civic life beyond neoliberal political rationality, to work in partnership with disadvantaged communities to create nonhierarchical forms of citizenship and cooperation. A collectively produced mural often regarded as one of the most public forms of art—graces an interior wall of Sol’s building. It depicts people of various races, sizes, religions, and ages holding hands in a circle à la Matisse’s Dance (1910). The art historical reference and social message are instantly recognizable.
A beer and a shot. The shot. It’s mid-April, and masked partygoers at La Choloteca’s outdoor Cholo Vibras event stand in line for drinks and then make their way to a tent manned by health care professionals from Emory University offering Covid-19 tests and information about vaccines. As the night goes on, everyone winds up on the ad hoc dance floor—the parking lot of dive bar 97 Estoria in Atlanta’s Cabbagetown neighborhood—twirling, twisting, and twerking to remixes of popular and underground Latin music. This is one of the city’s first major parties since the onset of Covid-19. Everyone is focused on surviving but dressed to kill. Local news crews and Univision show up to capture La Choloteca’s approach to “conscious clubbing” during the pandemic. Although the group has always prioritized the safety of partygoers—for instance, by providing information about recreational drug use and creating a nightlife space for queer Atlantans—such concerns became newly resonant in the context of Georgia’s laissez-faire public health measures. At this outdoor event, masks are required, tests are available, and vaccines are promoted.
La Choloteca, whose name combines the words cholo and discoteca, was created in 2016 by a group of first-generation immigrant friends in their twenties, including Josephine Figueroa and Monica Campana. Since then, their events have become indispensable to the city’s alternative nightlife scene and Atlanta’s growing Latinx population. By throwing parties, organizing artist markets, and promoting Latinx cultural history, the group seeks to redress both ethnic underrepresentation and assimilation pressures through communal joy and belonging.
La Choloteca’s parties are animated by a Latinx diasporic sensibility. At these events DJs play house cuts of Selena, trap edits of Celia Cruz, world-beat versions of Madonna, and a steady stream of old and new underground electronic music from Latin America and the Caribbean. Revelers respond with dance styles as varied and fluid as the sounds emanating from the speakers, from cha-cha sashays to vogue handwork. “Where do first-generation Latinx Southerners fit in?” cofounder and DJ Figueroa said in an interview. “There’s power in hybridity.” La Choloteca uses music and movement to embrace and enact the cultural fusions of Latinx immigrant communities in the Deep South, and to give form to a queer Latinidad as an alternative to conservative machismo.
As a growing cultural brand, the group leverages its visibility to create a platform for others. La Choloteca regularly hosts Cholo Mercado, an artist and artisan market—a more family-friendly affair than their late-night parties. The group’s website presents information about Latinx cultural history, especially as it relates to connections between the US South and the Global South, as, for example, in “Southern Disobedience: Five Afro-Latinx Activists of the Global South,” an article written by Kenneth Figueroa and published this year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. La Choloteca’s social media pages promote up-and-coming Latinx musicians and artists in the South while also cranking out Spanish and Spanglish memes. Like Sol, the cooperative uses a variety of social spaces—whether nightlife venues, art mercados, or online platforms—to pursue its mission.
“Nightlife is not just a scene for entertainment,” artist and DJ Honey Dijon wrote in Artforum. “Clubs can bring together people of diverse sexual orientations, ethnicities, and backgrounds in ways that government never can.” In light of both the harsh police responses to Black Lives Matter demonstrations and the necessary enactment of social distancing measures, La Choloteca’s embrace of the awesome intersubjective power of the crowd as a civic force feels especially charged. The makeup of a crowd can reveal much about society at large; who is allowed to take up space in public and in what ways? By gathering together all kinds of people from across the city in celebrations of difference, La Choloteca seeks to fortify a sense of home on and off the dance floor.
Living in a city, you can scarcely lean your head out the window without hearing someone complain about how much it has changed over the years. And indeed, Atlanta, like all cities, has experienced immense transformation in the twenty-first century, particularly in the wake of the Great Recession and during the pandemic. The city has lost public housing projects and gained luxury condominiums. Property values have increased as the demographic makeup has shifted. The urban core has become increasingly white, while Black and brown communities have been pushed further afield. Concerted effort on the part of government officials to turn Atlanta into a new entertainment mecca have made it harder for working-class residents and people of color to live here, because corporate tax incentives for entertainment conglomerates are balanced by austerity cuts to social services. Alternative arts and cultural spaces in Atlanta have fallen by the wayside as well. As Honey Dijon observes, “Cities have become places where people only consume and do not create.”
Contemporary art and its institutions have received well-deserved criticism for aiding and abetting processes of gentrification. Galleries set up shop in lower-income neighborhoods, which then attract hordes of young urban professionals, who in turn catch the notice of property developers and government officials set on “revitalizing” these areas, a euphemism for displacing the existing communities. Art-activist groups such as Defend Boyle Heights and Chinatown Art Brigade have generated much attention by protesting “artwashing” in Los Angeles and New York, respectively. The efforts of these groups and those in Atlanta make clear that the question of who can create—art, community, the “good life,” to recall Berlant again—has less to do with inspiration or talent than it does with social inequity.
The work of Sol and La Choloteca is artistically significant because their efforts contribute to a growing civic approach to aesthetics. Whether by offering free clothes or safe parties, artist residencies or artisan markets, the two collectives operate between and beyond conventional understandings of art and politics. Their work takes place at the scale of the dance floor, the block, the neighborhood, and the city as a whole; it can be perceived when life becomes more beautiful and joyous for those experiencing socioeconomic marginalization or cultural dislocation. The move from pictorial or plastic representation to experiential betterment is connected to the utopian urges of the historic avant-garde, the dematerialized ethos of conceptual art, and the socially animated practices of relational aesthetics. In many ways their efforts can be seen as carrying the baton forward from relational aesthetics, which curator and theorist Nicolas Bourriaud defines as “an art taking as its theoretical horizon the realm of human interactions and its social context, rather than the assertion of an independent and private symbolic space.” Moving beyond theoretical interest, such art-activist groups do not simply stage “human relations” but seek to improve them. They not only animate social contexts but attempt to create gainful forms of sociality.
Thus, Sol and La Choloteca might put readers in mind of community projects by artists such as Tania Bruguera and Theaster Gates. Bruguera’s “artist-initiated socio-political movement” Immigrant Movement International (2011–18), which offered legal, educational, and social services at no cost to immigrant communities in Corona, Queens, is now an independent community center, Centro Corona; Gates’s Rebuild Foundation (2009–) is a network of nonprofit organizations dedicated to developing communities in Chicago’s South Side by offering cultural resources and educational facilities. Their endeavors share a desire to create with the disesteemed subjects and spaces of contemporary American society.
How might art historians, critics, and theorists evaluate these endeavors? They need methodologies that can grapple with the formal, social, and material dimensions of such civic-oriented practices. First, close contact and sustained interaction with the organizers and communities involved are vital. On-the-ground experience ought to complement theoretical rigor and historical awareness. Just as one might afford sustained attention to the art object, one must also participate in the art-activism project. Second, scholars and publications can use their platforms to bring attention to grassroots organizations such as Sol and La Choloteca in order to facilitate critical discourse. This can take the form of articles, interviews, panels, symposia, and other formats that allow for what in the social sciences is called “thick description,” a form of interpretation that includes the voices of those involved in the practices and behaviors under examination. This essay is an attempt to follow the outlined steps and do justice to these groups’ efforts.
Sol and La Choloteca’s inclusive, world-building activities come at a time when civil discontent across the South is reaching a boil. From Black Lives Matter demonstrations to the toppling of Confederate monuments, to the protests over voting restrictions, to the objections to Covid mismanagement, to the outrage over abuses at ICE facilities, to the fight over abortion rights, the temperature of popular unrest is rising across the South and especially in the region’s unofficial capital. If Atlanta was promoted during the Civil Rights era as “the city too busy to hate,” today its spirited art and activism scene should give it a new identity as the city where art meets life.
This article appears in the November/December 2021 issue, pp. 54–57.