John Williams is in some ways an unlikely figurehead for an art event he hopes will lay a cold dose of funky on the city's performance scene.
Despite his mild manner and button-down shirt, Williams is a cultural provocateur. He is the organizer and curator of the Atlanta Alternative Arts Festival (or A3 to the alliteratively challenged), a two-weekend smorgasbord of performance art, theater, music, visual arts and assorted odds and ends. The festival takes place at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center alongside the exhibition New Waves: Selections From the Center Georges Pompidou's New Media Collection. The Pompidou show will feature film and video work from the Nouvelle Vague's grandpappy Jean-Luc Godard and young turks like the heralded video artist Peter Huyghe while A3 promotes Atlanta's avant-garde.
Williams has a diverse history as a filmmaker, producer and teacher on the local arts scene. He has lived in Atlanta for 21 years and in that time has detected a certain, oh, let's call it hesitation on the part of locals to witness the Ron Athey bloodletting and Karen Finley yam-punishing that has rocked the socks off of edgier cities. Atlantans have a tendency not to wager their paychecks for the performative Unknown, but as Williams wisely observes, "the arts don't come with a warranty."
Distressed by the lack of venues for vanguard-performance in Atlanta, Williams hopes A3, a reincarnation of the financially troubled Atlanta Gay and Lesbian Arts Festival, will fill that void and if not nurture a budding Finley in the flock, at least give some ambitious local performers a venue and an audience.
"One of the things that's happening here is we have a lot of emerging artists. They come here and hone that craft and they get good. And what happens is, unless you have an audience to support it, they're going to go somewhere else."
Performers for the A3 event cross disciplines and genres and will include, among others, the Athens coffee klatch/underground bookstore/performance and music collective X-Ray Cafe with Paul Thomas and Joe Silva interweaving film and music; the imaginatively tagged bands Hope for a goldensummer and Wife of Pariah; and local writer Collin Kelley, whose performance will juxtapose poetry, video projection and music. In addition to the performance elements, local curators Kelly Teasley at Youngblood Gallery and Kevin Miles at Momus Gallery will organize separate visual arts exhibitions of local and national artists in the former Nexus Press building.
One of Williams' goals with A3 is to give artists a chance to work outside their usual comfort zone, often in new media, while offering audiences a swift kick in the cultural shins.
Atlanta artist Anya Liftig is one of the A3 performers testing her own artistic boundaries for the festival. Liftig is best known for her photographic investigations of self in work exhibited at venues like Agnes Scott's Dalton Gallery and Saltworks. But for the A3 festival she is doing performance-based work in a multimedia collage of movement, projected images of found Super-8 footage and music.
"It's very experimental," says Liftig. "It's about the distortion of memory and distortion of ideas over time."
There are countless ways of describing the soul-shaking and mind-altering capabilities of great, trailblazing art. Liftig prefers a Yiddish expression: "You've got to have ants in your pants ..." she says. "Otherwise you don't know you're alive unless you're scratching something."