Arts & Letters
Artist Bethany Springer asked one question of 12 elderly residents of Memphis, Tenn.: “If you could fly anywhere in Memphis, where would you go and why?” With the power of their stories shaping her multimedia project, she describes herself as the conductor, rather than the creator, of Flyover Territory.
Springer, an assistant professor of art in the J. William Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences, interviewed randomly selected residents of nursing and rehabilitation centers in Memphis. It turned out that 10 were African American. Their stories were influenced by “overlapping concerns with issues of violence, progress, equality and power.”
Flyover Territory was shown in early 2007 as part of Made Public, an exhibit at the Memphis College of Art’s On the Street gallery, curated by Sanjit Sethi to explore notions of public and private space. The gallery is located across the street from the Lorraine Hotel, the site of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and now the façade for the Civil Rights Museum.
The sound portion of Springer’s piece was piped out to the street. Inside the gallery, the sound was accompanied by images from Google Earth projected onto the floor in a large rectangle that viewers could walk around. Given the ease of peeking at a place with Google Earth, Springer wondered what it was we couldn’t see. The people she interviewed revealed what was going on in their private worlds, both today and in the past.
“I wanted to physically place the viewer between audio and video, or between the intimate memory of a place as captured in audio versus the disengaged video of the corresponding site. The effect of seeing images on the floor as if you were flying is at times nauseating and disorienting,” Springer said.
One testimony represented a collective voice, said Springer, and in Flyover Territory she pairs the voice of 84-year-old James Mitchell with aerial imagery, juxtaposing his stories of the places he’d lived with their appearance today.
Mitchell talks of toting water for cotton-pickers near Germantown, Tenn., during the Depression. As he recalls being 11 years old and earning 25 cents a day for 10 hours of work, the aerial image swoops over Germantown today with its golf course and country club. Eventually Mitchell worked as a chauffeur for a Memphis accountant, and he speaks with pride of the good cars he always drove and the places he drove them. He remembers clearly the violence of the past, particularly at the time King was killed.
His memories of his birthplace, Olive Branch, Miss., are fond. He would like to go back there to buy cheese at the cheese plant and go to the picture show for a dime. Remembering its relative safety, he says, “Never knew no one who got killed then.”