Hell City Offering
When I was 7 or 8 years old I set the room that my sister and I shared with our parents on fire. Without understanding why, I've always been a pyro. A part of me wakes up from passivity and crawls out - front and center - from the black of my eyes to watch the flames lick and consume whatever the fodder might be; alchemizing the matter into ash and carrying it away into the air as smoke or steam. The prompt for this issue stirred that sleeping part of me. Fire's ability to step in to the shadow of so many different situations felt dizzying. My mind tangled and untangled and looped through possibilities. Death and rebirth sat atop the pile of associations that my brain loomed over.
Potlatch, the Northwest Native ceremony came to mind; an act that from an outsider’s perspective exists solely to prove affluence and prestige. Displays of gift giving or of the destruction of resources serve as evidence of how well to do a family/village/city might be. Potlatch manifests due to a number of circumstances, unseen strategies often involved. Encouraging those without resources to embark in the ceremony can effectively decimate the hosts, leaving the husks of abundance like cicada skins.
I thought of ancestor worship in Vietnam. The ways that my father’s family would burn offerings of hell money to great grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Sometimes elaborate paper replicas of outfits, entertainment systems, and other luxuries would be offered up in flames to loved ones residing in Hell. Hell is seen more as a transitory space like Purgatory in Catholicism, an in-between. At the forefront of my mind live the ones I’ve lost, amongst their smiling faces I see Atlanta.
Observing my city, which transforms both rapidly and passively, I arrive back to the realization that Atlanta is dying. It’s being killed, but not before first shapeshifting into a kind of perverse approximation. The embodied addresses that spring up in the wake of the old shape are weak impersonations. Our city's main export is culture. The essence we keep for ourselves is diluted, we pour another serving for the tourists to taste what we have to offer. We parody our self. We bend to the will and to the wants of outsiders. Give everyone a taste, and our taste is mutable, erratic. Desperate for approval, and to prove our weight/worth amongst the major cities, we erase our self, replace the old haunts and standbys with lofts, fitness studios, anthropologies. We beg, "don't leave, we can have that, too. Whatever that might be". We engage in our own potlatch. We demolish, we rezone, we make promises to the ones who've been here the longest but want the ones who've never visited to hear tale of our wealth. Our film industry, our shopping, our lofts. Our buildings, our stucco-- there's great bones there. Murder Kroger becomes Beltline Kroger becomes "Coming Spring 2019: Kroger".
This narrative isn’t unique to our city. It’s proliferating rapidly. We see the sanitized Disney versions of New Orleans. Dancers facing penalties and fines for touching their own bodies. What’s more marketable is the keepsake economy of Mardi Gras all year long, ignoring the pockets of folks who stayed through Katrina, who walked out of the ashes and felt the commitment to their city like humidity on their skin. There are the families evicted from their homes under the Ellis Act in California. There are the developers who use tragedies like the burning of the Ghost Ship to justify shutting down alternative spaces under the guise of their concerns for safety. Our city proves its weight here, dividing up our neighborhoods like meat cuts, licking its chops over spaces that served as havens for the weirdos, the queers, the homeless, and the freaks. The big house is going up for sale. The city raised the property taxes from around $4,000 a year to more than 10 times as much. A few blocks away the Open Door Community was leveled and is guarded from street view with another promise of condos to come.
This vessel is my offering, to the fleeting state of our city. Handbuilt with help from friend and fellow contributor, Carley Rickles, the form was etched with flowers and guardians of the death realm. A crane serves as an intermediary between the living world and the beyond. Painted white, the traditional color associated with mourning in Vietnam, this is my prayer for Atlanta to find foresight and hindsight. Burned as an offering to our present hell, so that we might serves ourselves more lovingly in response.