Dropout cultures have been with us since the Romantics, the Beats and the Bohemians, even if our own 1960s-era hippies have become synonymous with the idea of living off the grid.
Atlanta-based artist Ruth Dusseault has spent the past several years documenting some current strains of the counterculture across the country, and people united by their desire to drop out of mainstream life.
The initial premise for Dusseault’s “The Creatives” project on view at Inman Park’s Whitespace Gallery is fascinating. Dusseault focused on how millennials, as a generation uniquely enmeshed in technology, have defined “dropping out” in their own inimitable way. Technology, for this modern boho, has not always been anathema to a radical immersion in nature. In today’s dropout culture, internet connectivity is key, the better to open source designs for tractors or solar panels for your woodsy utopia.
“The Creatives” is divided into two phases. The first is a room of large photographs documenting the countercultures Dusseault has encountered in deep dives into a variety of “ecotopias,” in California, Oregon, New Mexico, North Carolina, Missouri, Prince Edward Island and other outcroppings of the “voluntary primitivism” movement.
In her captivatingly busy, overflowing with information photograph “Aubrey in Kitchen, California,“ we get a feel for the cozy hub of one commune’s shared kitchen space. A wall is dominated by tea bags tacked to the wall like artwork, for every possible physical and existential ailment (“Make Tea Not War,” a sign proclaims). You can practically smell the vinegary tang of fermentation, peppermint tea and patchouli, bare feet and wet wool. Shelves are lined with pickles, and a sign warns of the hazards of pressure cookers.
It’s an evocative immersion in the off-the-grid reality that has so clearly captivated Dusseault. In images like these, the artist charts a consistent theme of nature coexisting alongside technology in a new way, as with multiple photographs of a tractor constructed from spare parts that looks like a 1950s Erector Set married to a Survival Research Labs performance art robot. Such devices hint at the ingenuity and determination at work in these communities.
Deeper inside the gallery, a darkened room features a two-channel video installation with footage of some of the people Dusseault has encountered in these off-the-grid worlds, milking cows, operating a gristmill, performing in a “magick” festival. Viewers are invited to sit on a solar panel bench and contemplate documentary footage, often accompanied by the artist’s voice heard interviewing her subjects. The videos feature landscapes of brutal, wintry industrial landscapes and mostly men — many middle-aged — who embody the stereotype of the back-to-the-land movement. But here any interest in the particularity of the recent phenomenon of tech-dependent millennials dropping out recedes before a general portrait of a continuum of radical DIYers.
What “The Creatives” inspires more than anything is an abiding sense of curiosity about what unites these people — especially the younger denizens — beyond the outward investment in nature and brewing organic tea. What “The Creatives” can often end up doing is reduce these people to a stereotype without plumbing the rationale for their choices.
Surely there are differences between the white-haired man in beaten-up overalls milling corn and the moon-faced, glowing millennial parents, the man with a baby protectively lashed to his chest, seen in an enthralling Dusseault photograph “Adam and Eve, Skill Sharing Festival, North Carolina.” It’s an image of enormous beauty and hopefulness that hints at the Utopian possibility that has captured its residents’ imaginations. But rather than dive into such peculiarities, “The Creatives” can often feel like the most cursory, postcard glimpse of these worlds.
Through Sept. 1. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays. Free. Whitespace Gallery, 814 Edgewood Ave., Atlanta. 404-688-1892, whitespace814.com.
Bottom line: An Atlanta artist documents countercultures, yielding some beautiful images but more questions than illumination.
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