“Seen/Unseen” taps art, history to tell tales of bygone Athens


November 6, 2013
Athens Banner-Herald
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“Seen/Unseen” taps art, history to tell tales of bygone Athens
By Andre Gallant

For most, a definition of art can follow Potter Stewart’s famous criteria: “I know it when I see it.” But what of history? We easily define it as pages bound and filed away on shelves; as TV shows vocalized by heavily degreed talking heads.

When the two become purposefully linked – art and history combined – what matters more is not what we see, but what we get out of the marriage: We may extract a better understanding of our present than if each discipline were practiced alone.

At its core, “Seen/Unseen,” an exhibit of public history and local past, is an amalgam of visual storytelling and research into sepia-tone realms. At its core, its a collaboration of art (ATHICA, co-curator Hope Hilton) and history (Georgia Virtual History Project) institutions. But we shouldn’t see the two forms as distinct, said co-curator Christopher Lawton, a professor of history at the University of Georgia and co-funder of GVHP.

“History is a lot of art,” he said. “It’s not just dry dusty facts. … Once you get to the part that’s interactive … then you’ve blurred the lines between those two disciplines.”

Both disciplines, following Lawton’s thinking, are essentially visual storytellers, especially when history is made into a watchable form.

With the GVHP, Lawton and co-founder Mark Evans have sought to make Georgia’s history mobile and, yes, interactive, making the user, for all intents, the director of their own history documentary. A quick example: stand in front of the arch, use the GVHP app (still in beta) and find pictures, documents and maps at your fingertips, all telling the story of how that iron icon came to be.

But “Seen/Unseen” focuses on the less obvious history around us, specifically of Athens. At the Saturday reception, as part of the numerous events associated with UGA’s Spotlight on the Arts Festival, Lawton and company with debut three new video projects illuminating little known corners of local history. Others involved in the show follow their own outline. Katie Gregg has followed a quirky downtown historian known for selling his handwritten tomes of the street corner. Cynthia Lollis revives an almost 15-year-old project highlighting some of Athens laboring lives in the late 1990s. Photographer Wayne Bellamy captures civil war trenches as modern topography.

Taken together, the goal of this work of art and history is rather straighforward: making us stop, reflect and take stock of the swirling lives around us and which came before us.

“The very premise of this show is that (Athens) has this story to tell,” Lawton said. “It had a 150-year-old story, a 50-year-old story and a present one.”

“Seen/Unseen” presents a very now version of what will be available to use in the future through the GVHP: tiny documentaries, almost tailored to exactly the spot we are standing in; stories that lift the blinders on the history being made around us and, as Lawton said, recognize the DNA of lives past in the soil beneath our feet.