The Atlas of Tomorrow

An exercise in short-circuiting the subconscious gossip and mental reruns.

We tell ourselves strange stories. Stories like I am not good enough or I will never be understood. We hear these words in the private chatter, the idiot hum in our heads. This voice is a village crowded with heroes and cowards, a chorus of teachers, dreamers, and thieves fighting for our attention and telling us we who are. But sometimes we catch a glimpse of who we might become. Perhaps it’s a rogue thought in the shower or a shiver of déjà vu on the sidewalk, but for a moment our mental weather clears and the world makes some kind of sense. They call this synchronicity, when our insides meet the outside in a meaningful way. You might call it gut sense or intuition, but you know when it happens. It’s encoded in the hairs on your neck, the flutter in your nerves, and it’s been within you all along, a deep prehistoric knowledge that occasionally breaks to the surface before disappearing beneath the next wave of chatter.

The Atlas of Tomorrow was designed to make these moments happen more often. Conceived by the artist Candy Chang, The Atlas is an interactive mural in Philadelphia that invites passersby to consider a dilemma in their lives, spin the dial, and consult a fable inspired by the I Ching, the ancient Chinese text that examines the inevitability of change. I wrote sixty-four short stories that blend the lessons of the I Ching with classic archetypes that highlight the different personalities we carry within us. The result is a collection of dispatches from ‘the town in our head’ that introduces a surreal world of endless winters, murderous sunflowers, and rotting cars to describe familiar anxieties and passions.

10. THE LION. Last week a lion came to town. Naturally we were terrified. He stalked our streets with his tail swishing behind him, snarling and lunging at anyone who came near. We gathered on rooftops and watched from a distance, too frightened to return to our offices and homes. He ate mailboxes and brutalized small cars; he was taking apart the post office with his teeth when a little girl came skipping down the street. She bounded towards the beast with outstretched arms, chanting Mr. Lion, Mr. Lion as if he were a stuffed animal that had come to life. She giggled as she picked up his tail and began skipping rope. We gasped. We covered our eyes. But the lion simply sighed and settled down for a nap. When approached by such a cheerful and harmless creature, what else can you do?

Approach your adversaries with kindness and no harm will come to you. Your behavior will determine the well-being of your community and yourself. Integrity is louder than words.

58. THE SMILE. There once was a woman we loved to see. She had a lovely smile that would spread from her face to ours. It was not the type of grin that appears when you hear a clever joke or you’ve been tickled but the elegant smile of someone who has learned a bit of wisdom through the years and might even be satisfied with life. Whenever she entered a room, her smile was a welcome and reassuring sight, and we sat a little straighter and felt a little brighter. One day somebody whispered in her ear and it must have been quite a joke, for her gentle smile grew into a jack o’lantern grin and we smiled too at first—but then her smile grew so big and wide that we became frightened, although we could not quite explain why.

Emotions are contagious. Joy comes from curiosity and truth, and must be balanced with dignity if it is to last.

18. The Cars. One morning our cars began to roll over and die in the streets. At first it was just a few convertibles and sedans but by late afternoon hundreds of cars and trucks lay on their backs in the rush hour sun, their wheels pointed at the sky. Nobody wanted to clean up the mess and we spent weeks arguing about the cause. We formed committees and held hearings to assign the blame. Meanwhile our cars remained upside down and we could not go anywhere. Months passed. Birds made nests in the wheel wells and grass sprouted from engines, axles, and transmissions. One day we realized that nobody was coming to clean this up. There was no cause and there was no one to blame. It was just one of those things. That night we gathered in the streets and began to rock and tip our cars until the world was right again.

Rather than worry about the cause of unfortunate circumstances, improve the situation. Repair is vital to growth.
The mural is located at 533 South Juniper Street at South Street. Concept and artwork by Candy Chang; stories written by James A. Reeves. A collaboration with the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, the Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services, and Broad Street Ministry. The project is featured in the exhibition By the People: Designing a Better America at Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum from Sep. 30, 2016 through Feb. 26, 2017.
Other Public Works

Grief Is a Beast That Will Never Be Tamed

Heraklion, Greece

A collaboration with Candy Chang that offers a public meditation on loss and invites passersby to share the rituals, beliefs, and texts which have provided solace.

She Dreamed of a Place Called Fat City

New Orleans, Louisiana

A collaboration with Candy Chang that explores the possibilities of deeper storytelling in public space.

Love Destroys Time

New Orleans, Louisiana

A public art installation in an abandoned apartment complex. Inspired by the true story of a blind woman who once lived here, Candy Chang and I developed a cinematic fable about lost love.