Doors opening and closing. Harried strangers, entering and exiting. Movement, mass, innovation, intersection, interruption. Trains, in all their symbolic potential, have long propelled the imaginations of writers and artists. And here in Atlanta, formerly known as the rail hub Terminus, trains have a particularly poignant connection between where we’ve been, where we’re at, and where we’re headed.
Arriving right on time to help link these transitory narratives together is the “NEXT Movement,” a multimedia, multi-platform project led by NEXT Atlanta—a nonprofit arts organization founded in 2008 with the mission of amplifying the city’s up-and-coming artists, particularly artists of color—and MARTA Artbound.
The partnership officially kicked off in September with a poster series featured on digital billboards at MARTA locations across the city. In the coming months, the NEXT Movement will begin airing a video series featuring brand-new works from five acclaimed local artists, each filmed in a decommissioned vintage MARTA car. Think of NPR’s Tiny Desk series, but on MARTA. The project goes live and in-person on November 17 with a four-hour event at the High Museum featuring performances from the five featured artists.
The project was the brainchild of NEXT’s co-founder and executive director, Faith Carmichael, who works by day in public health and is a singer and artist herself, with longstanding connections throughout the arts community.
Carmichael said she was partly inspired by collaborations between artists and other cities’ rapid transit systems. Examples include singer Gregory Porter performing on New York City’s subway in 2014 and violinist Joshua Bell performing on the D.C. Metro, which was featured in the 2007 Pulitzer-winning Washington Post piece, “Pearls Before Breakfast.” Wasn’t it high time for Atlanta to have something similar?
The other motivating factor was a need Carmichael heard echoed by numerous NEXT artists—the lack of an avenue to process and heal from the traumas of the last few years: the pandemic, police brutality, racism, and civil unrest. “[Artists] were saying that the sky is literally falling, and we don’t have space to tell this story,” Carmichael said.
Katherine Dirga, director of MARTA’s Art in Transit program, said they’d already been looking to collaborate with NEXT even before the pandemic. “We’re starting to envision ourselves as more than a transportation agency,” Dirga said. “We see that we connect people all over the region. What does that mean, and how can we leverage that? How can we fill some niches that need filling?” In recent years, MARTA Artbound has partnered with True Colors Theatre Company, the Atlanta Opera, and Flux Projects, among others.
Shot in July by a crew from Las Palmas Studios at the RailYard near Lindbergh Station, the NEXT movement’s forthcoming video shorts, as well as the live performances this week at the High, grapple with the ever-tumultuous “present moment.” They will feature new works by cellist and songwriter Okorie “OkCello” Johnson; artist and muralist Melissa Mitchell; composer, pianist, and singer CC Sunchild; HBO Def Jam poet, speaker, and actor Carlos Andres Gomez; and Emmy-award winning poet, playwright, performer, and Moth host Jon Goode.
Goode, a 2014 NEXT “alumnus,” is an avid MARTA rider, whether headed to work or to play chess in Woodruff Park. When working on a new piece, he said he tries to write directly to the folks he used to ride the bus with all the way down Candler Road. “Poetry doesn’t live in an ivory tower. It should meet people where they are. I think that’s what NEXT is striving to do,” he said.
Along with the innately compelling visuals, the train car motif of the videos is also a way to replicate the intimate feel of NEXT’s signature salons, which Carmichael said at times took place in people’s living rooms when the organization was just starting. Convening artists and curating a space in time, Carmichael said, can result in a “beautiful unfolding.”
Or, as Goode puts it: “Turn the microphone on for the right crowd, leave the door cracked open, and God might walk in.”
The NEXT Movement video performances will stream on the websites and social media for NEXT, MARTA, the National Black Arts Festival, and the High Museum, and will air on WABE. Tickets to Thursday’s event at the High are free and can be found here.