published Sunday, May 19th, 2013

Cook: Weird matters

Weird is cardboard sledding.

Weird is graffiti, belly-dancing troupes, urban chickens and beer with bacon in it.

Weird is slack-lining, stand-up paddleboards and coffee delivered by bike.

Weird is the Gig, goats that eat kudzu, the Left and Right trying to recall the mayor.

Weird is that punk-rock part of your heart that wants to do the crazy, the creative, the unconventional.

Weird is this: who we are when we're not afraid.

"To be nobody but yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight,'' wrote the poet e.e. cummings.

He was talking about being weird.

Here in Chattanooga, a little movement is afoot. Like Whac-a-Mole, it pops up in 100 different places, yet one little sticker -- slapped on more and more stop signs, bumpers and instrument cases around town -- sums it up best.

Make Chattanooga Weird.

Sure, other cities ("Keep Austin Weird") already promote weird culture; but here, work is being done to build and encourage it. As Chattanooga keeps making list after list of Best Places to Live, there exists both the danger that weirdness will be scrubbed out (like cultural whitewashing) and the exciting opportunity that it will spread like, well, kudzu.

"I love weirdos," reads the spray-painted sentence on a Dumpster near Main Street.

"Weird is good," reads a sign outside Moccasin Bend Brewing Co.

Such culture is about creativity, innovation and not being afraid to shake the foundations. It translates into a fresh and unpredictable city, a place where the sum is more than the parts and the worst crime of all is staleness.

Weirdness is the cultural equivalent of sticking a fork in an outlet.

"A lot of things in Chattanooga are dealing with the fringe culture or things that are not necessarily mainstream," said Tim Hinck, one of the city's most active experimental artists.

Hinck, whose New Dischord Festival opens June 6 and will feature avant-garde artists from across the country, spoke about weirdness present in the local arts, food movement and bike culture.

One example: the current exhibit at the Association for Visual Arts gallery on Frazier Avenue, where 1,000 black Ping-Pong balls hang in a seemingly random pattern from the ceiling. Seen from just the right angle, they form the image of an assault rifle.

"There's not an oil painting in sight," Hinck said.

Traditionally, the South has not encouraged weirdness, yet Chattanooga is throwing off its cultural shackles, becoming a midsize Southern city known across the U.S. for its innovation, said Hinck, who mentioned the legacy of Barking Legs Theater and the Shaking Ray Levi Society in building such a culture.

"You wouldn't expect five experimental arts organizations that are nationally recognized in a town this size," he said.

Weirdness is democratic. Our city streets are not supposed to be sanitized, manicured and monoculture dull. Weirdness is the opposite of Disneyland, where everything is clean, orderly and all buses run on time.

It's not a small world after all. Look around. There are freaks and geeks and great white sharks and lizards that walk across water and sunflowers that grow 10 feet tall.

Cities, too, should reflect such crazy beauty. (Jesus was weird; all those lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors? Imagine that crowd walking down Market Street at lunchtime.)

Weird is the gas pedal; it leans forward into life, is generous -- not rigid -- toward difference. Weirdness hates bigotry. Its opposite is intolerance, boredom and, at the far end of the spectrum, a locked-down police state.

Here in the city that invented miniature golf and the tiny hamburger, we already have a semi-weird past.

Make Chattanooga weird?

Make it weirder.

Contact David Cook at dcook@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter at @DavidCookTFP.

about David Cook...

David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...

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AndrewLohr said...

Hating sin is weird. God wants "a peculiar people, zealous to do good works."

Benny Goodman wore the gray flannel suit and played the saxophone with great skill. As my friend Dave Bird wrote in the Pulse (?) some years back, just because art is ugly doesn't mean it's original or creative, and just because it's done within a tradition doesn't mean it lacks value--"I'm gonna stand as close to EmmyLou Harris as I can get" (at Riverbend.) Being peculiar, of course, does not guarantee closeness to God either. Nor bar it.

May 19, 2013 at 2:14 a.m.
Hunter_Bluff said...

Having closely observed the city for the past 12 months living downtown, I'd add cardboard sledding to the list of icons that identify Chattanooga along with the downtown bridges, the Aquarium, Lookout Mountain (and it's trinity of Rock City, Ruby Falls, The Incline) and the great river. I've been in 55 countries and 49 states - I've not seen so much card board sledding in all the world.

May 19, 2013 at 8:55 a.m.
lkeithlu said...

I grew up in the Panama Canal Zone, where cardboard sledding was a dry-season obsession!

May 19, 2013 at 9:01 a.m.
Walden said...

I'm as conservative as they come, but I'm ok with this "weird" thing. I love New York City, precisely because there is a surprise around every corner. Walk down into the "real" Manhattan, away from Midtown, and you never know what sensory delight awaits you. I'm ok with a concerted effort to be an interesting city, but I would hate to see this movement become a caricature of itself. Weirdness for the sake of weirdness will just come across as phony, and won't last the test of time.

May 21, 2013 at 8:50 a.m.
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