By Jules Jackson
The skeletal remains of the Standard-Coosa-Thatcher mill complex glow as if they were on fire. Inside, the Pop-up Project is going through the final rehearsal for If These Walls Could Talk, an immersive dance performance that seeks to tell the history of the mill before it is lost to the collective memory of Chattanooga.
“It’s just such a beautiful space,” says Jules Downum, director and co-founder of the Pop-up Project. “It didn’t take a lot of work on our part to make the space impactful. And the stories were already here.”
Even though the mill was not designed for performance, its hardwood floors give and creak underfoot like an old ballet studio. As the dancers twirl and sway through the space, they tap into this hidden potential.
The Pop-up Project already had several years’ worth of experience with immersive, site-specific dance when Collier Construction approached them in 2021 to collaborate on a production in the mill.
The mill will soon be turned into a housing development with retail stores and artist studios, according to Collier Construction’s website.
“They reached out to us, took us on a tour of the space,” Downum says. “They asked, ‘What do you want to do here? Pitch us an idea.’”
The Pop-up Project signed a contract with Collier Construction to produce If These Walls Could Talk in April 2022, and immediately hit the ground running in pre-production. The non-profit was founded in 2016. In the beginning, the group would scout locations in Chattanooga, research the history of their chosen spaces, choreograph short dance films based on their research, and post the films to social media.
“We had done show production in the past, and it was a big challenge because there wasn’t an audience for dance,” Downum explains. “There weren’t spaces that were affordable to have production, so, once you paid for the theater and the sound and lighting person and all that, there was really no money left over for the artists. And so we thought, let’s take dance out of the traditional theater setting, and use what’s available for us, which is social media, to actually build an audience for dance.”
Now, Downum seeks to do a similar research process for the mill.
“The process started with just me digging into what was available through online resources,” Downum explains. “Just reading about what mill work was like. […] There were a lot of labor issues, a lot of union battles that happened. There were difficult working conditions.”
After her initial research, Downum conducted interviews with four Chattanoogans who worked at the former mill or lived in the surrounding town.
“The archival research informed the interview questions, so I would ask about specific things that I had heard about or read about in the archives, and then from those things we set four themes.”
These themes were the beauty of fabric, the working conditions of the laborers, the machine-like nature of the work, and the celebration of community in the mill town.
The mill lies in the shadow of Missionary Ridge, near the line between East Ridge and Rossville, Georgia. It was one of many owned by the Standard-Coosa-Thatcher Company, a twentieth-century cotton manufacturer that once spanned across the southeast.
In a south whose economy was changing rapidly after the Civil War, many people living in rural areas who had survived on subsistence farming and small food sales moved into urban centers to work in factories. As they moved, they brought their networks with them, building churches, schools and even baseball teams around their shared workplaces.
Traveling down Watkins Street, there lies a divide that summarizes the urban landscape of Chattanooga. On one side of the street lies the mill. Imposing, skeletal, marked by the fingerprints of thousands who have passed through it, its strong brick structure gradually succumbing to the elements. On the other side of the street lie brand-new townhouses–so new that the stickers are still on the windows.
Downum explains that Collier Construction’s biggest challenge in their development process was the mill itself. “A lot of people found [the mill] threatening because it’s old and was abandoned.”
A key aspect of the mission of the Pop-up Project is to help build a strong arts economy in Chattanooga, establishing art as a legitimate form of labor.
“We’re looking for, ‘how do we sustain something that supports artists financially?’” Downum says. With this project, “We got funding to test that model out, and to build something like this and to see how the ticket sales do, and then do some financial modeling after that and see–is this a viable business model?”
In a society rapidly moving away from pandemic-era funding programs, Downum worries for the future of the Pop-up Project.
“The financial stresses on organizations are actually, I think, more, coming out of the pandemic,” Downum says. “People really rallied to support the arts in 2020, and a lot of help became available. And there’s actually a lot less resources now.”
All the members of the Pop-up Project work full-time jobs in addition to their dance performances. Downum herself works more than 40 hours a week, and although she occupies a paid administrative position, she donates her time to dance rehearsals and project direction.
When asked about her major takeaways from this project, Downum first thinks of how many challenges the group has faced during production. Yet her focus ultimately turns to triumphs won.
“It’s hard to have any time to reflect in the middle of it,” she says. “But I think, at the end of it all–at the end of every project–I’m reminded that, for me, the reason why I keep doing this is because of community. I love telling these stories. I love doing art. … Connecting through my art with people who are different from me.”
Meet the Storyteller
Jules Jackson is a visual storyteller currently pursuing his Bachelor of Science degree in Communication at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga. He has a passion for film as a way to share important, thought-provoking stories. In addition to his creative work, he also does videography for ArtsBuild, a grantmaking and fundraising organization for artists living in Hamilton County, Tennessee. He can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.